How to Get Into Med-Surg Nursing

5 Min Read Published September 21, 2023
Med Surg Nursing Career Guide | 2023

What is Med Surg Nursing?

Med surg nursing stands for medical surgical nursing, and it's the largest nursing specialty in the US. A med surg nurse is a specific type of surgical nurse who cares for patients preparing for or recovering from surgery. But med surg nurses' duties expand beyond surgical patients, as they provide care for a wide range of non-surgery patients in the hospital as well.

Medical surgical nurses provide 24-hour care to patients during their hospital stay. Admitted patients will spend more one-on-one time with their med-surg nurse than any other medical professional while admitted to the hospital.

Med-surg nursing provides a range of specialties for nurses to enter, such as:

  • General surgery
  • Plastic surgery
  • Neurosurgery
  • Orthopedic
  • Vascular surgery
  • Bariatrics
  • Urology
  • Oncology
  • Cardiac care
  • Gastrointestinal

Med-surg nurses often work at a hospital or medical center in an acute care or med surg unit at the bedside. However, this nursing specialty may also be found in other areas, such as outpatient clinics or home healthcare facilities. 

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What Does a Med Surg Nurse Do?

Med-surg nurses provide direct bedside nursing care in a med-surg unit, which is a hospital ward for patients who are preparing for or recovering from surgical procedures. On shift, a medical surgical nurse usually manages the care of 4 to seven patients at a time. They also discharge patients and admit new patients into their care throughout their shifts. 

Some critical med surg nursing duties and responsibilities include the following:

  • Admitting patients to the med surg unit
  • Administering medication and providing pain control
  • Ambulating patients
  • Providing wound care
  • Monitoring and recording vital signs and events in electronic medical records (EMRs)
  • Working with ancillary specialties - such as physical therapy, diabetes specialists, or speech therapy - to coordinate care
  • Performing or ensuring diagnostic testing is completed
  • Providing patient education and discharge instructions
  • Discharging patients to outpatient facilities or home

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Med Surg Nurse Salary

The median pay for nurses is $81,220 annually or $39.05 per hour, according to 2022 reports from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). But that’s an average across nurses with different degrees, working in many specialties and living in various locations. RN salary varies depending on several factors and can range widely throughout the country. 

One such factor is your nursing specialty, with med surg nurses achieving higher salaries than general RNs. For example, ZipRecruiter reports med surg nursing salaries at $120,699 a year, while general RN salaries average $90,901 annually.

Other factors that may impact your med surg nursing salary include:

  • The city and state where you live
  • The type of healthcare facility you work in 
  • Whether you work 8, 10, or 12 hours shifts
  • Whether you work full-time or part-time
  • How many shifts you work in a week

Med-surg nurses living in some areas of the country may earn a much higher income than others. However, the salary usually aligns with the cost of living in the area. For example, South Dakota nurses typically earn less than San Francisco nurses. However, it's also much more expensive to live in San Fransisco than in many other states, such as South Dakota.

How to Become a Med Surg Nurse

To become a med-surg nurse, you must meet the following requirements: 

1. Attend an Accredited Nursing Program

There are two pathways to becoming an RN:

2. Pass the National Licensure Examination

Becoming an RN requires you to pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN). Per diem nurses must also maintain a current and active license. Once licensed, you must renew your RN credential every two years by completing and submitting continuing education units (CEUs) per your state's nursing board requirements.

3. Apply for Med-Surg Nursing Jobs

You can begin working in med-surg nursing right away through new nurse graduate programs in your area. Most new graduate med surg nursing programs last 2-6 months and offer the in-depth training you need to be a successful med surg nurse. Often, facilities pair recent nursing grads with a tenured nurse to help teach them core med surg nursing skills and competencies.

>> See Med-Surg Nursing Jobs Hiring Now

4. Become a Certified Med-Surg RN

After earning a minimum of one year of experience, you can sit for the Medical-Surgical Nursing Certification (MEDSURG-BC™) exam. Certification will let your employer, coworkers, and patients know that you are an expert in your field and can provide the highest level of patient care.

Med Surg Nursing Skills & Competencies

The Ability to Stay Calm

Caring for surgical patients is not easy because their conditions can rapidly become serious or critical. You also have many responsibilities that you must juggle, making the med-surg nursing environment hectic and stressful. Therefore, Med surg nurses must be able to maintain a calm demeanor and work well under pressure.

Organization & Multitasking

Med-surg nurses often care for 4-7 patients at once, all of whom need specific care. On top of that, they must admit and discharge patients throughout the day and tend to any emergencies. To balance all those duties, med surg nursing requires tons of multitasking and organizational skills. 

Critical Thinking

There are many moments throughout the shift when a med surg nurse must prioritize their duties. Sometimes, they do so under urgent conditions, making critical thinking skills a must. Being able to prioritize tasks and think on your feet can make a huge difference in a med surg unit.


To work in med-surg nursing, you must be proficient in hundreds of nursing competencies, a few of which include:

  • Assessing neurological status
  • Managing different types of catheters, such as urinary or epidural
  • Providing care for drains, such as a chest tube or hemovac wound drain
  • Providing CPR when needed
  • Understanding and educating on medication administration, contraindications, side effects, and dosing calculations
  • Providing pulmonary care such as tracheal suctioning, chest drainage symptoms, and assessing breath sounds
  • Starting and maintaining IVs and providing IV medication
  • Performing complex dressing changes
  • Providing care for braces, casts, and traction devices

Zip Recruiter reports that employers are looking for several specific keyword skills when reviewing potential med-surg travel nursing candidate’s resumes, some of which include:

  • Inpatient care
  • Treatment planning
  • Behavioral  analysis
  • Medical records
  • Acute care
  • Psychology

>> Related: How to Become a Circulating Nurse

What Is It Like to Work in Med Surg Nursing?

Med-surg nurses provide essential and often life-saving care for their patients and families during some of the most challenging times of their lives. Although working in med-surg nursing can be very stressful and exhausting, many say the career gives them a sense of pride in their work. 

A career as a med-surg nurse may not be suitable for everyone. This nursing specialty requires a sense of determination, the ability to manage the complex patient care of multiple patients simultaneously, and a strong stomach. 

But if learning about various surgical procedures while utilizing a wide range of complex nursing skills appeals to you, med surg nursing might be the perfect career for you!

$70,000 - $90,000 Associate Bachelors Bedside RN Med-Surg
Sarah Jividen
Sarah Jividen Contributor

Sarah Jividen, RN, BSN, is a trained neuro/trauma and emergency room nurse turned freelance healthcare writer/editor. As a journalism major, she combined her love for writing with her passion for high-level patient care. Sarah is the creator of Health Writing Solutions, LLC, specializing in writing about healthcare topics, including health journalism, education, and evidence-based health and wellness trends. She lives in Northern California with her husband and two children. 

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