What Is a Medical-Surgical Nurse? Exploring This Broad Nursing Focus Area

medical-surgical nurse You know that nursing is more than playing dress-up with scrubs and working at a hospital. You want to make a difference, and you know that you’ve got what it takes. But there are so many types of nursing—pediatric, neonatal, ER, ICU, OR—the list goes on. The variety can be a bit overwhelming if you’re just getting familiar with potential nursing career paths.

Thankfully, you’re not alone in that feeling. Thousands of nurses have gone before you and have grappled with this same uncertainty as they started their careers. Everyone has to start somewhere, and as it turns out, one of the most common starting points is as a part of a medical-surgical nursing team.

In this article, we’ll dive into the details of this expansive nursing role so you’ll have a clearer path of this common nursing career starting point.

What do medical-surgical nurses do?

Imagine this. You wake up early, don your trusty blue scrubs and grab your lunch bag complete with a diet cola and turkey sandwich. You’re ready for another extended shift at the hospital where you’ll tend to patients whose ailments can vary substantially. You are a medical-surgical nurse, and you’ve got this.

You are part of a flexible team of nurses assigned to patients who are making a hospital visit for any number of reasons—they can be on the mend from a recent surgery, dealing with shortness of breath, or suffering from severe back pain. Pick a reason you might visit a hospital, and an experienced medical-surgical nurse has seen it.

After trading your coffee mug for a stethoscope, you’re ready for the report from last night’s shift. They update you on the condition of the handful of patients in your ward, and after that, you see them for yourself. Make a game plan. Who needs what pain meds when? Who’s coming in and who’s leaving? Whose charts need to be completed?

From here on out, it’s a game of changing cards. As one of the go-to people in this unit, you need to keep track of which patients are improving and which patients need more attention. From minute to minute, your plan could change. But you’re not alone. You have a team of trained nurses and doctors all coordinating to give your patients the best care.

It can be overwhelming at times and no two days are the same, but as you develop your skills and learn more about your field, you will begin to see how meaningful this job can be. Medical-surgical nurses are the comforter, the caretaker and the conductor of a patient’s well-being. They look to you for reassurance when they need it most.

Why start with medical-surgical nursing?

As a new nurse, you will have studied and received a lot of hands-on training during clinical rotations—but this experience is only scratching the surface of what you may want to focus your nursing career on. Starting out on a medical-surgical nursing unit is an excellent opportunity to get real experience working with patients dealing with a broad cross section of ailments. From heart to lung, from correctional to preventative, there are almost as many types of patients as there are types of surgeries.

Along with learning how to treat a variety of conditions, you will gain skills that are important for all medical positions. As any medical-surgical nurse will tell you, time management and prioritization are crucial. If you have six patients to take care of, and six patient charts to track, and two of your patients are showing signs of discomfort, but one needs to be discharged, what do you do? This role requires quick thinking and the ability to reshuffle priorities as patient needs can change suddenly.

This is the unit where many nurses get their “sea legs” and master how to think like an effective nurse in potentially stressful situations. Even if you know you have your heart set on eventually working in a more specialized nursing unit, the experience gained in a medical-surgical unit will go a long way in showing that you can be an effective member of nursing team.


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