What Does RN Mean? The Meaning and History Behind Registered Nursing

6 Min Read Published April 26, 2022
What Does RN Mean? The Meaning and History Behind Registered Nursing

What Does RN Mean?

RN is an abbreviation for Registered Nurse. RNs are medically trained professionals who care for patients. These initials are used for individuals who have completed the necessary schooling and passed the required NCLEX examination. 

Becoming an RN is a lifelong aspiration for some. It takes hard work and dedication to make it happen.

So, what is nursing? Started in the 1800s by Florence Nightingale during the Crimean War, modern-day nursing has transformed over the years into what it is today. However, nurses at one point in history were only men or even women of slightly lower classes. Educated women were not allowed to tend to the sick and dying. Nightengale changed that. And that is why she is revered by nurses around the world. 

Knowing what it means to become a nurse is the first step in pursuing your passion. Understanding the history of nursing and what it means to be an RN will help you on your nursing journey.

Find Nursing Programs

What is an RN?

A registered nurse is a licensed professional that administers hands-on care to patients in a variety of healthcare settings. An RN has passed the NCLEX and is licensed by either an individual state or has an enhanced nursing compact license (eNLC). RNs can specialize in many different fields and have the opportunity to advance their education.

Nurses can work in locations such as: 

  • Hospitals
  • Medical offices
  • Nursing homes
  • Government facilities
  • Academia
  • Private practices
  • Telehealth

What Does a Registered Nurse Do?

Some of the registered nurse's duties and responsibilities include:

  • Administer and monitor medications
  • Admit and discharge patients
  • Assist patients with ADLs including feeding, dressing, and bathing
  • Coordinate with other healthcare providers
  • Develop and implement nursing care plans
  • Educate patient and family on disease process and diagnosis
  • Insert and manage IV catheters
  • Perform basic and advanced life support
  • Perform end of life care
  • Perform physical examinations
  • Perform vital signs and recognize abnormalities
  • Prepare patients for bedside procedures and surgeries
  • Provide emotional support to patients and families
  • Review and maintain medical records
  • Supervise and orient new nurses and nursing students

>> Show Me Online Nursing Programs

The History of RNs

Nursing dates back to Florence Nightingale. Also known as “The Lady With the Lamp,” was a British nurse who cared for the wounded during the Crimean War. Specifically, she cared for wounded soldiers at Constantinople.

Nightingale, the daughter of a wealthy British family, believed that educated, higher-class women could care for the sick and dying. However, this job was not seen as a respectable career for high-society women. Nightingale believed that scientific principles and informed education about healthy lifestyles could dramatically improve the care of sick patients. 

Image: Florence Nightengale

In 1854, British soldiers were badly wounded during the war and were dying at a rapid rate due to unsanitary conditions at the field hospitals and camps. The British government asked Nightingale to assemble a team of 38 nurses to travel to the military hospital at Scutari. Nightingale and her team of nurses reorganized the barracks hospital, including: 

  • Walls were scrubbed for sanitation
  • Windows opened for ventilation
  • Nourishing food prepared and served
  • Medications and treatments administered  

As a result of Nightingale’s work, death rates dropped, and soldiers were no longer getting sicker from unsanitary conditions. By the end of the 19th century, Nightingale’s work was shared around the Western world, and the importance of educated nurses was seen as imperative. 

>> Show Me Online Nursing Programs

Image: Florence Nightingale and the Crimean War

Two years after the war ended, she became the first woman member of the Royal Statistical Society for her use of graphs in healthcare. In 1860 she founded the Nightingale Home and Training School for Nurses to properly train healthcare workers.

As urbanization and industrialization grew, women from religious nursing orders were known for the quality of the nursing care they provided in the hospitals they established. Some hospitals only hired men to care for their patients, but most hospitals found that women generally cared for their patients better than their male counterparts. 

In 1873, three nurse educational programs were established based on the teachings of Florence Nightingale in the United States: 

  • New York Training School at Bellevue Hospital
  • Boston Training School at Massachusetts General Hospital
  • Connecticut Training School at the State Hospital 

Image: New York Training School at Bellevue Hospital

Hospitals established their own training programs for nurses. In exchange for lectures and clinical instructions, students provided the hospital with two or three years of skilled free nursing care. Modern-day tuition reimbursement. Unfortunately, while this seemed like a great idea at the time - nursing students were tied to hospitals instead of colleges and universities. Furthermore, African Americans could only seek training at schools established by African-American hospitals.

>> Show Me Online Nursing Programs

Image: Boston Training School at Massachusetts General Hospital

The success of the three aforementioned schools led to the creation of 400 to 800 schools by 1900. Additionally, in the 1890s, nurses organized two major professional associations:

  • The American Society of Superintendents of Training Schools for Nurses, later renamed the National League of Nursing Education,
  • The Associated Alumnae of the United States, later renamed the American Nurses Association.

Other major organizations, such as the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses and the National Organization for Public Health Nursing, formed in the early twentieth century. 

What Does it Mean to Be an RN?

Being Tough

Being an RN is hard. Shifts are long and challenging. Patients and their families test your strength and can push you to your limits. You must have determination and willingness to be flexible. 

If the last several years have taught the profession anything is that nurses are strong. Nurses have a voice. Nurses are no longer going to allow their roles to be diminished or lessened. 

Making the Best of Hard Situations

There are countless unexpected realities to nursing. First and foremost, often what is taught in nursing school is not the reality of real-world nursing. More often than not, hospitals and healthcare systems are short-staffed, and assignments are heavier than anticipated. 

This causes a burden on the current staff but also on the new graduates and orientees. Oftentimes, orientations are cut short, or preceptors are also newer nurses, which puts the entire system in jeopardy and at a disadvantage. 

The Learning Process Never Stops

Nurses should also be prepared to continue learning - even upon graduation. And that isn’t referring to continuing your education with an MSN or DNP. 

Most nursing specialties are not actually taught in nursing school. For example, Neonatal ICU nursing is barely mentioned during nursing school. The basics of neonatal nursing are taught during obstetrics; however, it does not prepare nurses for their role in the NICU. Nurses should expect to study throughout orientation and beyond. Without continuing to learn and study - nurses will not have the ability to safely care for their patients. 

>> Show Me Online Nursing Programs

What Does it Take to Be an RN?

Becoming a registered nurse requires a few steps:

Step 1: Attend Nursing School

You’ll need to earn either an ADN or a BSN from an accredited nursing program in order to take the first steps to become a registered nurse. ADN-prepared nurses can complete an additional step of completing their BSN degree if they wish.

It’s important to make sure the nursing program is accredited by either the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN) or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). 

Step 2: Pass the NCLEX-RN

Become a Registered Nurse by passing the NCLEX examination.

Step 3: Gain Experience at the Bedside

Find a position at the bedside in the specialty that you are interested in. This can range from pediatrics to critical care to an office or clinic.

Step 4: Earn Your Certification

While not required for all positions, earning a certification in your specialty will increase your earning potential and job opportunities. 

Step 5: Continue Your Education

Consider earning your Master’s degree and becoming a Nurse Practitioner, Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist, Nurse Educator, or Certified Nurse Midwife

Kathleen Gaines
Kathleen Gaines
News and Education Editor

Kathleen Gaines (nee Colduvell) is a nationally published writer turned Pediatric ICU nurse from Philadelphia with over 13 years of ICU experience. She has an extensive ICU background having formerly worked in the CICU and NICU at several major hospitals in the Philadelphia region. After earning her MSN in Education from Loyola University of New Orleans, she currently also teaches for several prominent Universities making sure the next generation is ready for the bedside. As a certified breastfeeding counselor and trauma certified nurse, she is always ready for the next nursing challenge.

Read More From Kathleen
Go to the top of page