Nurse clinician working on a laptop

Nurse clinicians are registered nurses who specialize in treating patients in a particular age group or with certain illnesses or injuries. 

Nurse clinicians can work in many settings, including hospitals and long-term care facilities. They can also be nurse practitioners who hold advanced degrees, diagnose patients, and prescribe treatment plans.

Nurse clinicians can have different roles depending on their education and credentials. Some hold bachelor’s degrees, others have master’s degrees and advanced certifications. 

Read on to discover the complete career guide for becoming a nurse clinician.

What is the difference between a nurse clinician and a registered nurse (RN)? 

Most nurse clinicians work above registered nurses. They have advanced degrees and education, and many work as nurse practitioners or clinical nurse specialists. They can be found in almost every healthcare sector, including emergency medicine, pediatrics, and critical care. 

A nurse clinician tends to have much greater career responsibility and clinical authority than a registered nurse. Some employers call specialized RNs “nurse clinicians” as well. The title and its role in healthcare vary depending on where you live and your employer. 

For the sake of this article, we’ll be referring to RNs with advanced degrees or certifications in a chosen specialty as nurse clinicians. 

What qualifications does a nurse clinician need? 

Every nurse clinician has to earn a nursing degree, pass the NCLEX, and earn their RN license. They must also undergo additional training and possibly earn a master’s degree to perform their role. 

For example, nurse practitioners (NPs) are registered nurses who have completed master’s programs and residencies in their chosen specialty, such as family medicine or acute care. 

If you want to become a nurse clinician, you will have to complete nursing school, gain experience as an RN, and align yourself to a particular specialty in healthcare. While building your resume, you can work with different types of patients in various healthcare settings to discover where your passion lies.

What work does a nurse clinician do day to day? 

The daily responsibilities of a nurse clinician often include:

  • Performing physical and mental health assessments on their own patients

  • Ordering diagnostic lab tests

  • Making diagnoses and developing treatment plans

  • Providing care orders to nursing staff in hospitals and other facilities

  • Answering questions and educating patients on their conditions and healthcare

  • Communicating with other members of the healthcare team, like RNs and physicians, to coordinate care plans

  • Advising patients and their family members on how to manage their health at home 

The exact scope of your work will vary based on the type of patients you work with and the conditions you’re trained to treat. Family nurse practitioners (NPs) are nurse clinicians who see the widest range of patients.

They are certified to provide healthcare to patients ranging from infants all the way through senior citizens. Many of them form long-term relationships with families, and they may even treat members of the same household as primary care providers. 

Their scope of care ranges from common medical issues, such as respiratory illnesses, sprains, and strains, and refer patients to specialists for more advanced care and treatment. 

A psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMH-NP) will spend more time working with patients who are adolescents or adults and dealing with psychiatric rather than physical health problems. 

Where do nurse clinicians work?

Nurse clinicians work in many settings, including hospitals, doctor’s offices, family health clinics, community healthcare facilities, mental health hospitals,  nursing homes, home care, and long-term health or rehabilitative facilities. 

What is it like to be a nurse clinician? 

It’s great to work so closely with your patients, even when you see a high volume during a shift. Because nurse clinicians have greater clinical authority, they can make diagnoses and assess patients more comprehensively than registered nurses. 

Being a nurse clinician is a lot of work, and the added responsibility of diagnosing a patient can be stressful at times. But if you’re passionate about playing a large role in someone’s healthcare, it’s a fantastic job with a lot of potential to specialize in a focus area you love. 

Advantages of choosing a career as a nurse clinician

If you’re considering earning your MSN to become a nurse clinician, here are some advantages and drawbacks to the career. Everyone’s perspective is different, and what some nurses dislike about a job may not bother you as much.

However, we believe it’s important to look at both sides of a career to help nurses like you make the best choices for their futures. We also believe it’s important not to compare your career wants and needs with others. 

You need to choose a career path that you look forward to doing each day, not one that you think you should follow just because the pay is higher or others have suggested you do so. 

Advantages to choosing a career as a nurse clinician

Help a variety of patients improve their lives

As a nurse clinician, you work closely with patients and physicians. Your goal is to help every patient alleviate symptoms and take better care of themselves. 

In addition to treating acute illnesses and injuries, you’re also a health educator. You inform patients about ways to live better, such as making better dietary choices and exercising more frequently. 

You also answer questions and help patients and their families better understand different health conditions and how to manage them efficiently. 

Greater career flexibility

Most general registered nurses work several 12-hour shifts consecutively. Nurse clinicians tend to have more flexible work hours. Some work 8-10 hours daily in a clinical healthcare facility, and many work under physicians in their practices. 

It’s possible for a nurse clinician to work for only several days a week and maintain an easier work-life balance than other nurses. 

Your schedule depends on where you choose to work and the healthcare facility's needs. 

You can also choose the work environment you enjoy most rather than being limited to demanding hospital positions. 

You can be creative in your work

People usually don’t think about healthcare as a creative job, but it’s much more expressive than you think! 

Being a nurse clinician requires developing your own unique approach to healthcare and a distinctive bedside manner. 

How you communicate and interact with your patients is personal and helps you build relationships with them that create lasting differences in their lives. 

Earn more money

Nurse clinicians who work as nurse practitioners, certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs), and clinical nurse specialists earn higher annual salaries than registered nurses and LVNs/practical nurses.

Nurse clinicians who work as RNs with specialized certifications also earn more than their non-specialized colleagues. 

Disadvantages of choosing a career as a nurse practitioner

Greater responsibility

It may not seem like a negative at first glance, but having patients rely on your diagnosis can be difficult at times. Because you’re the one writing their treatment plan, their health is your responsibility; nurse clinicians who work as practitioners or specialists with a higher risk of malpractice lawsuits if something goes wrong.

High-stress levels

There will always be a patient to see, paperwork to write, and something to do as a nurse clinician. You have to balance your job's constant demands and the need to collaborate with physicians, nurses, and other members of your patient's care teams. It’s a fast-paced, demanding job that can lead to chronic stress. 

Time and money investments are required

You must spend years cultivating a specialty, earning a degree, and/or qualifying for specialty credentials to become a nurse clinician. This means you’ll routinely have to invest additional time and money into furthering your career, all while holding down a full-time job. 

How to become a nurse clinician

In the broadest sense, anyone earning their RN can work as a nurse clinician. But to become a nurse specialist, you must complete nursing school, earn your RN license, then earn an RN or certification in your specialty area. 

Frequently asked questions about nurse clinicians

How long does it take to become a nurse clinician? 

Becoming a nurse clinician takes 6 to 8 years, depending on your desired career title and specialty. For example, RNs who want to become nurse clinicians with a specialty need to finish their degree, then spend at least two years working in their specialty area. 

Aspiring nurse practitioners must complete a BSN, gain experience as an RN, complete an MSN, and complete their residencies as nurse practitioners.

Is a nurse clinician the same as a registered nurse? 

Yes, a nurse clinician is a registered nurse. However, they have completed additional training or education to gain experience and qualify as specialists in their focus area. Some nurse clinicians hold a bachelor’s degree and certifications, others are nurse practitioners with master’s degrees. 

Are clinicians and practitioners the same thing? 

It depends on who you ask. Generally, referring to a nurse as a nurse clinician implies they have greater clinical training and education than a registered nurse. Most employers use the term clinician to refer to any doctor, physician, or nurse practitioner who directly treats and diagnoses patients. 

What makes a good clinical nurse?

All nurses must be open-minded, patient, empathetic, and dedicated to the greater good of their patients. It requires a lot of personal sacrifices, so you must be willing to give every case your all, even when a patient isn’t cooperative or even outright rejects your care.