Definitions of Nursing

A nurse is a professional caregiver. Someone who advocates for patient's rights, promotes health, educates patients and families, and strives to eliminate pain and suffering. A nurse carries a large responsibility in the care and treatment of her patients.

Nursing is one of the most rewarding professions and yet at times can be one of the most frustrating and thankless. A nurse is a highly skilled individual who learns to combine the scientific aspect of health care with the fine art of caring.

The following definitions will provide you with an understanding of the basic levels of the nursing profession. They will serve as building blocks for determining what education is required, what roles are open to each level and how to explore opportunities for advancement.

  • Nurse: someone who cares for the sick and infirm. A nurse is a member of the health care team and provides different kinds of health care to patients based on the nurse's level of education.

  • Registered Nurse (R.N.): a nurse who has graduated with a diploma or a degree from a state-approved nursing program, passed the state board examination for professional nurses and has been granted a license by the state to practice professional nursing in that state. R.N.s with advanced degrees and certificates will have increased options for their scope of practice.

  • Licensed Practical (or Vocational) Nurse (LPN/LVN): a technical nurse who has graduated from a state-approved nursing program, passed the state board examination for practical nursing and has been granted a license to practice in that state as a practical nurse. The LPN/LVN works under the supervision of an R.N. or a physician to provide patient care. With IV Certification, the LPN/LVN can perform certain aspects of IV care. The title of Practical or Vocational nurse varies by state law, but the role is essentially the same.

  • Nurse's Aide (CNA): also known as a nursing assistant, a CNA is unlicensed. A CNA delivers limited care to patients under the supervision of licensed nurses. The CNA may take vital signs and assist in activities of daily living such as giving baths, making beds, dressing, feeding, and positioning patients. The CNA completes a training course that includes classroom and clinical instruction. They are regulated by state agencies.

  • Scope of Practice: each member of the health care team is allowed to perform certain duties based on the content and level of education received, the license granted, and the specifics of the laws and regulations of the state in which they are practicing.

  • Nurse Practice Act: the group of laws in a state that protect the public health. It defines the scope of practice for nurses in that state. The Nurse Practice Act (NPA) also includes the requirements for education and licensing, as well as disciplinary and punitive measures for unsafe practice. It is the responsibility of every nurse to know the responsibilities and limitations outlined in the NPA of the state(s) in which the nurse practices.

  • State Board of Nursing: the governing board in each state that oversees the statutory laws that comprise the NPA for that state. This board is responsible for protecting the public by determining who is competent to practice nursing in that state and suspending or revoking the license of anyone who is deemed incompetent.

For additional information and definitions, please refer to the Glossary of Terms and Acronyms. There are many other members of the health care team. In some settings, medical assistants, CNAs, and other non-licensed personnel may be referred to as “the nurse.” While they play an important role in health care delivery, confusing their role with that of the nurse is a practice that is misleading and at the very least should be discouraged.

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