Nurse Types / Ambulatory Care Nurse
Ambulatory care nurses provide medical care to patients outside of the hospital. Patients are often seen for follow-up treatment, observation, tests, or same-day surgeries. Ambulatory care is often described as a busy yet fun environment with less stress.
Nurses seek this specialty for a healthier work/life balance while still maintaining hands-on skills and interacting with less critical patients.
Ambulatory care nursing is a growing field open to nurses of all backgrounds and experience levels. Whether you are a new graduate nurse or interested in changing your specialty, this article will cover the following to help you decide whether ambulatory care is right for you:
- What is an ambulatory care nurse?
- What do ambulatory care nurses do?
- Where do ambulatory care nurses work?
- What are closely related fields?
- How do you become an ambulatory care nurse in 3 steps?
- What are the additional requirements of ambulatory care nurses?
- What are the salary and career outlooks for ambulatory care nurses?
What is an ambulatory care nurse?
Ambulatory care nurses provide non-acute medical care usually in outpatient settings. They may treat a specific population or a mix of patients such as:
One way to differentiate between an ambulatory care nurse from other types of nursing is to consider the word ‘ambulate.’ A patient typically ambulates, or walks, into a clinic, office, or outpatient facility to receive treatment from this type of nurse, and is not brought in due to an emergent situation.
Qualities of a successful ambulatory care nurse
Ambulatory care nurses often work in fast-paced settings and transition between tasks and patients frequently. These are some of the traits that make for a successful ambulatory care nurse:
- Communication. As an ambulatory care nurse, you may treat a revolving door of patients throughout the day and must be able to communicate clearly not only with patients but with your colleagues and other healthcare providers to ensure safe and timely care.
- Attention to detail. While most patients you will care for are stable and not experiencing life-threatening emergencies, nurses must be alert for changes and concerns. A patient receiving a simple procedure may have a rare allergic reaction or a sudden change in condition that requires prompt recognition and intervention.
- Time management. Prioritization can make or break your day. From coordinating follow-ups, administering medications, performing intake assessments, triaging, and more, the responsibilities of the ambulatory care nurse are varied. The ability to manage your time effectively keeps you, your patients, and your coworkers on schedule.
What do ambulatory care nurses do?
One advantage of ambulatory care nursing is interacting with different patients and performing a multitude of tasks and skills. It’s never boring and each day can bring something new. You will likely provide many of the following services:
- Hold telehealth consults to follow-up with patients
- Conduct health education on treatments, illnesses, and medication
- Start IVs for procedures and administer sedatives or medications
- Assess and monitor vital signs
- Delegate tasks to other staff members
- Coordinate care between other healthcare providers
- Triage or answer health questions telephonically
- Draw lab work or obtain cultures and specimens
- Assist with procedures, tests, and simple surgeries
- Perform wound care, suture removal, or splinting
A day in the life of an ambulatory care nurse
Ambulatory care nursing is very different from the day-to-day activities of an acute care hospital nurse. You won’t likely experience seriously ill patients or manage complex situations. Each setting and specialty will have different functions, but you can usually expect a scheduled day unless you work in a walk-in clinic.
Another difference is that ambulatory settings often operate according to normal business hours and aren’t open on weekends or holidays. This can be a huge advantage for some nurses.
Your day may begin with administrative tasks, preparing charts, or making phone calls. As patients arrive you will check them in or perform intake assessments including vital signs and possibly starting IVs if the patient is undergoing a procedure.
Depending on the reason for the patient’s visit you may monitor them after a procedure, follow up on a chronic issue, or educate them on symptoms, diets, or medications. As you monitor or discharge a patient you will document accordingly.
Throughout the day you may make phone calls, respond to secure messages, or complete telehealth visits. Your role may also include administrative duties like monitoring equipment and stocking supplies.
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Common conditions treated by ambulatory care nurses
Along with the opportunity to provide hundreds of procedures, you will encounter various patient conditions depending on your specialty.
Ambulatory surgery nurses may assist with:
- Weight-loss surgeries
- Eye procedures
- Endoscopy procedures
Ambulatory care nurses in medical offices may treat common chronic conditions like:
- Congestive heart failure
Ambulatory care nurses in specialty settings may interact with more niche patients. For example, if you are in an ambulatory wound care clinic, your patients may often present with pressure ulcers, surgical wounds, or ostomies.
Where do ambulatory care nurses work?
The AAACN defines a characteristic of ambulatory care nursing as a patient encounter that can occur once or as a series of interactions that last less than 24 hours. Some hospitals may have ambulatory care units, but ambulatory care centers operate differently from the hospital and do not treat critical patients. Common settings for ambulatory care nurses include:
- Private or specialty medical clinics or offices
- Primary care offices
- Ambulatory surgery or diagnostic procedure centers
- University or college health clinics
- Veterans Administration facilities
- Freestanding community clinics
What are closely related fields?
Ambulatory care nurses have the unique opportunity to interact with patients, continue to provide nursing-specific care, and make a difference without the stress of a hospital environment. The common theme is an outpatient setting similar to:
- Urgent care nursing
- Dialysis nurse
- Public health nursing
- Radiology nursing
- Outpatient clinic nurse
- Pain management clinic
- Chemotherapy infusion or oncology offices
Another central theme of ambulatory care nursing is surgical services. Closely related surgical roles include:
How do you become an ambulatory care nurse in 3 steps?
Whether you are a new graduate nurse or a nurse looking for a change, ambulatory care nursing is a great specialty to hone your skills or change your pace.
Step 1 – Become a registered nurse
Attending nursing school and obtaining a nursing degree is the first step to this specialty.
Earn a BSN degree
A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree is often recommended by most employers and sets you apart from other candidates. It may make switching from another specialty to ambulatory care nursing easier. If you are already an RN with an Associate Degree in Nursing, there are many options for obtaining a BSN degree.
The RN to BSN program a great way to save time and money. You can continue working while you finish your degree.
If you are interested in entering the ambulatory care field from another profession and already hold a bachelor’s degree, an Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) is another option.
Pass the NCLEX exam
After graduating from nursing school, you must pass the NCLEX to assess minimum competency as an RN. Modifications were introduced to the NCLEX due to the pandemic, though difficulty and passing standards were not impacted. The minimum exam length remains at 75 questions, though the maximum number of questions is 145 items. Candidates have five hours to complete the exam.
Step 2 – Accumulate experience
While this specialty often accepts new graduate nurses, it is in your best interest to have at least 1-2 years of experience as a nurse.
Helpful skills and experience
Many of the skills needed for ambulatory care nursing can be learned on the job, but it will be less of a learning curve if you have a few years of acute care experience. The reason for this is you will be transitioning between different patients, scenarios, diseases, and skills frequently. Having confidence in your assessment skills and clinical knowledge will allow you to better serve your patients.
Changing your specialty to an ambulatory care nurse
If you are a nurse considering a change to ambulatory care nursing, being proficient with the patient population you will be caring for will be a huge advantage. For example, if you have experience in telemetry, your skills will translate perfectly to a cardiology ambulatory clinic.
Incredible Health offers a wide variety of free continuing education courses. These courses are valuable for nurses transitioning into a new specialty and offer education on conditions and patients you may not have direct experience with.
[ MORE: Earn your CEUs online, 100% free with Incredible Health. ]
Step 3 – Obtain certifications
- American Academy of Ambulatory Care Nursing (AAACN) offers nurses the opportunity to take an extra step in their specialty. This certification is for you if you wish to increase your credibility, validate your knowledge, and potentially increase your position and earning power.
- Certified Ambulatory Perianesthesia Nurse (CAPA) is for nurses who work in an ambulatory surgery center. They regularly care for patients under sedation, analgesia, or anesthesia. This certification is proof of your commitment and excellence in the field.
What are the additional requirements of ambulatory care nurses?
Ambulatory care nurses should be empathetic, personable, team players. You will have frequent and nearly constant contact with patients and staff. You will collaborate daily with healthcare providers and act as part of a multi-disciplinary team.
Critical thinking and clinical judgment abilities are also very important. Triaging is often a large component of some ambulatory care settings. You may triage patients in person, over the phone, or virtually and must have strong clinical and nursing judgment experience to appropriately manage patient questions and concerns.
What are the salary and career outlooks for ambulatory care nurses?
Median salaries for ambulatory care RNs range from approximately $75K-85K, depending on the location. The lowest hourly income is around $28 while the highest can be $45 or more.
Ambulatory care resources are growing to accommodate patient needs and changing healthcare access trends. Nurses are needed in roles and settings beyond the bedside.
Ambulatory nurse salary by state
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One study conducted on ambulatory care nurses in an oncology setting found over 80% of nurses were satisfied with their job and over 87% intended to stay.
Consistent work hours that align with family schedules are often a benefit to nurses. If you are interested in escaping 12-hour shifts or mandatory weekends, ambulatory care nursing may offer improved job satisfaction. Ambulatory surgery centers often operate on four 10-hour shifts and are usually closed on holidays.
If you are an acute care nurse who is easily stressed from high-acuity patients or heavy workloads, ambulatory care nursing offers a more scheduled, predictable environment with less uncertainty.
If you are an ambulatory care nurse who is interested in advancing your career, consider a certification in your specialty. Another option is advancing your education by obtaining your Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree or becoming a Nurse Practitioner to have a larger role in supervising or performing advanced procedures.
Incredible Health’s real nurse advice community is always available to answer your questions and help you navigate the many options and opportunities available. Don’t forget to check out our career resources for interview and resume tips to help you land your ambulatory care dream job.
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- “Ambulatory Care RN Salary.” salary.com. Accessed June 28, 2022.
- “American Academy of Ambulatory Care Nursing Certification.” aaacn.org. Accessed June 28, 2022.
- “American Board of Perianesthesia Certification.” cpancapa.org. Accessed June 28, 2022.
- “COVID-19 Impact to NCLEX Candidates.” nscbn.org. Accessed July 4, 2022.
- “Defining Characteristics.” aaacn.org. Accessed June 28, 2022.
- Friese, C. R., & Himes-Ferris, L. (2013). Nursing practice environments and job outcomes in ambulatory oncology settings. The Journal of nursing administration, 43(3), 149–154. Accessed June 28, 2022.
- “Nursing Procedures.” aaacn.org. Accessed June 28, 2022.
- “The Evolution of Ambulatory Care.” voice.ons.org. Accessed July 4, 2022.
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