A clinical nurse specialist is an advanced practice registered nurse who has received a graduate-level degree—like a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). Their training grants them greater flexibility than a typical nurse does. For example, they can interpret, diagnose, oversee patient issues, along with ordering tests and refer patients to treatment facilities.
Every CNS has a specialty. The areas they work in are categorized as follows:
- Patient population
- Medical setting
- Disease type
- Care required
- Specific patient problem
In total, CNSs wield a lot of authority. They guide nurses in both leadership and mentoring roles. They also can enact a lot of change within the medical facility they work in. Some CNSs can open their own practice and see patients individually. This position allows for direct patient care and advocacy in a way that’s unique and rewarding.
What does a CNS do?
Clinical nurse specialists work in many different capacities. In general, CNSs divide their time between caring for patients and coordinating with nurses and other healthcare team members. In many ways, the CNSs are like nurse managers.
More specifically, they work in the following capacities:
- Treating patients
- Creating and changing treatment plans
- Advising other nurses
- Providing feedback as an industry-expert
- Performing research
- Coordinating with other members of the healthcare team to enrich patient care
- Determining opportunities to meet needs and create new policies
How do you choose a specialty?
When you’re in school on track to become a CNS, you will get a chance to choose a specialty. It’s essential to pick something that suits your personality and appeals to your career goals. The question then becomes, how do you know which specialty is right for you?
Take an inventory of your past work history. What field of nursing have you enjoyed the most? If you enjoy working with children, consider becoming a pediatric CNS. This position allows you to work exclusively with children and provide them with excellent care and support.
You may find that you prefer working with women, focusing on reproductive health. In this case, you would pursue the gynecological specialty.
You may feel drawn to the mental health field, which would require you to pursue a psychiatric nursing specialty.
CNS vs. NP: What’s the difference?
You may be wondering what the difference is between a clinical nurse specialist and a nurse practitioner. The two positions overlap significantly. Yet, some distinctions separate both roles.
The National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) conducted a study that showed the similarities between both roles. They surveyed 1,526 NPs and 1,344 CNSs and found that they both perform the following roles: :
- Take patient medical histories
- Provide physical examinations
- Analyze patient data to make evidence-based decisions
- Administer medications and other treatment methods
- Give leadership and educate other nurses on staff
Though the roles share a lot in common, the CNS position focuses more on administrative or research-oriented roles, while the nurse practitioner role is tailored to direct patient care. In many ways, the CNS takes a big-picture approach to provide healthcare, whereas the nurse practitioner is involved more granularly.
Though they have these principal differences, the fundamental mission of a nurse practitioner and a clinical nurse specialist is the same. They both want to provide patients with quality health care.
How do you become a CNS?
The first step to becoming a CNS involves gaining experience as a registered nurse. To earn your RN license, you must graduate from a nursing program approved by your state board of nursing. This can be either a bachelor’s or associate degree. After completing your degree program, you must pass the NCLEX-RN.
After you gain some experience as an RN, you need to earn at least a Master of Science in Nursing degree. This degree should emphasize a specific clinical nurse specialist track.
Following graduation, you are required to get CNS certified. You can choose many different certifications that are administered by the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). Certifications need to be reviewed every couple of years.
How much can you earn as a CNS?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not track CNS salary data. They include this position with registered nurses who diagnose diseases or are treating practitioners. Within this scope, a CNS makes approximately $82,380, according to the BLS.
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