Nurse Types / Primary Care Nurse
Primary care plays an important role in preventing illness and improving people’s health. The role of the primary care registered nurse is critical in the delivery of comprehensive care. Nurses not only focus on preventative medicine, but also identifying care gaps, especially in vulnerable populations. Making the switch to primary care nursing can be very rewarding.
In this article, we will discuss:
- What is a primary care nurse?
- What do primary care nurses do?
- Where do primary care nurses work?
- What are specific types of primary care nurses?
- How do you become a primary care nurse in 3 steps?
- What are the additional requirements of primary care nurses?
- What are the salary and career outlooks for primary care nurses?
What is a primary care nurse?
A primary care nurse is a registered nurse who works in an outpatient primary care office. They typically work with a primary care physician, physician’s assistant, or nurse practitioner. They can work autonomously but always have the providers and support staff in the office to ask questions or to work collaboratively to solve a problem.
Qualities of a successful primary care nurse
A successful primary care nurse possesses some of the following traits:
- Detail oriented
- Good listener
- Comfortable with multitasking
- Sensitive to cultural and ethnic differences
Clear documentation and communication with the healthcare team is also essential. By remembering details about a patient, the primary care nurse facilitates a smooth delivery of healthcare.
For example, the primary care provider orders a test for a patient. The patient needs to complete that specific diagnostic test as soon as possible. It can be helpful to know where the patient lives, and what transportation method is available. The nurse also needs to convey urgency to the patient as well which diagnostic facility to use. This ensures the test is completed in a timely manner.
What do primary care nurses do?
Primary care nurses work as an essential team member to promote wellness while also being an advocate for their patient when needed. They are well versed on a variety of healthcare issues as any condition can be managed by a primary care office, even if not directly.
One part of the primary care nurse’s responsibilities is to help manage chronic disease in the outpatient setting while preventing hospitalization when avoidable.
Some primary care offices serve as a patient’s medical home, where medical, dental, and other healthcare services are performed.
Patients may have multiple referrals and specialists they see, and a primary care nurse provides care coordination. They ensure the patient’s medications, allergies, other issues, and treatment plans are shared amongst the appropriate medical providers.
A day in the life a primary care nurse
A primary care nurse may perform some of the following tasks:
- Phone triage
- Patient education
- Assistance with medical procedures
- Wound care
- Care coordination with other medical offices
They may spend part of their day performing phone triage, where they assess the symptoms a patient is experiencing and decide whether the patient needs to be seen in the office that day. They may direct the patient to an urgent care or emergency department if the primary care office cannot manage their specific condition.
Primary care nurses find their day to be a mix of caring for post surgical patients, acutely ill respiratory conditions, administering immunizations, and a mix of community and mental health care.
Primary care nurses also spend a considerable amount of the time providing patient education in person or over the phone. The nurse may call a patient after his or her visit to review lab results or explain the next steps in their treatment plan.
They may provide education around medication changes such as insulin or blood pressure. In some offices, nurses may speak to patients before their appointment to review an in-office procedure and to prepare the patient with what to expect.
Often in primary care, there are patients who need to be seen urgently on the day they call into the office. The primary care nurse needs to be able to juggle the needs of same-day appointments with patients that are already scheduled. The nurse has to act as an advocate for their patients while maintaining the schedule and workflow of the office.
Common conditions treated by primary care nurses
Most commonly, primary care nurses will care for patients with the following conditions:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
They may also triage patients who are experiencing an acute condition such as a cough, low back pain, abdominal pain, pharyngitis, rash, or a UTI.
Where do primary care nurses work?
Primary care nurses typically work in freestanding offices. They can also be located within a hospital or medical campus.
Depending on the geographical location, many primary care offices are part of a large healthcare system. It is common to find them on a medical campus adjacent to a hospital.
What are specific types of primary care nurses?
Primary care nurses may choose to specialize in a variety of fields depending on the population they serve. Some specialities include:
- Ambulatory care nurse
- Triage nurse
- Certified lactation counselor (CLC)
- Wound ostomy care nurse (WOCN)
Closely related fields
Nurses who work in outpatient specialist’s offices have similar roles and responsibilities to those of a primary care nurse. For example, the workflow of a nurse working in an outpatient cardiology office is related to that of a primary care nurse.
Even though the work setting is comparable, the difference in primary care nursing is the longevity of the nurse-patient relationship.
How do you become a primary care nurse in 3 steps?
Step 1 – Become a registered nurse
The first step in becoming a primary care nurse is to complete your nursing education. There are several paths you can take to do this. See which career path is right for you.
Once you’ve identified the right educational path, you’ll need to complete any prerequisites and apply. There are many nursing schools, and each may have their unique set of requirements. Nursing education programs can take anywhere from eleven months to four years.
Earn a BSN degree
Although some primary care nurses completed their Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), it is more common to see Bachelor of Science in Nursing-prepared nurses working in primary care offices because the nurses can work autonomously. If you have your ADN and wish to obtain your BSN there are bridge programs available such as the ADN to BSN.
If you are already a registered nurse and wish to complete your BSN there is an RN to BSN program. For those with a BSN in an unrelated field, you can complete the Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing in under 2 years.
Pass the NCLEX-RN exam
After completing your degree, you will need to sit for the national exam called the NCLEX-RN. Your school will likely prepare you to pass the exam by offering a review course, practice tests, and study materials.
This is a standardized test with a five-hour time limit. The content includes basic nursing knowledge necessary for provide safe nursing care. You’ll have to obtain licensure in the states where you plan to practice.
Step 2 – Accumulate experience
Helpful skills and experience
Nurses switching to primary care will find it a smooth transition if they have any experience with triage in previous nursing jobs. For example, experience in the emergency department can be very useful in primary care.
The skills needed to be a strong primary care nurse overlap with those of a great emergency department nurse. Some primary care nurses also come into nursing with experience as a medical assistant or front desk staff member, which is very valuable.
Changing specialty to a primary care nurse
Making a change mid-career to a new nursing specialty can seem like a hard move to make. Incredible Health has a wealth of nursing career resources and can help you make the transition to primary care nursing. Here’s an example:
Sarah had five years of experience as a registered nurse working inpatient at her local community hospital. She had worked on the medical telemetry unit and was deciding where to go next in her career.
She had been charge nurse on her unit for the past two years and really enjoyed working with the house supervisor to ensure the right patient came to their floor. Before she made the career switch, she began looking at her time on the medical-telemetry unit and realized how much experience she already had that would be applicable to primary care.
- Strong communication skills
- Effective listening
- Time management
- People management
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Step 3 – Obtain certifications
Although there is no specific certification to become a primary care nurse, it is common for primary care nurses to obtain a primary care certification or have a specialty certification.
What are the additional requirements of primary care nurses?
Primary care nurses may have come to their role with inpatient hospital experience, but it is not a requirement. You may also need to maintain your basic life support certification.
To maintain your state licensure, and to stay current in your nursing practice, it is crucial to complete continuing education units.
What are the salary and career outlooks for primary care nurses?
The outlook for the nursing profession in 2022 is very positive. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the nursing profession to grow 6% between 2021 and 2031. This is faster than many other occupations.
Salaries vary by state for registered nurses. While the average annual nursing salary is $82,750, a primary care registered nurse can make $88,524 on average. Primary care nurses should consider where they want to live and the highest paying cities in the U.S. for registered nurses.
Primary care nurse salary by state
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Many primary care nurses report high job satisfaction. Here are some of the top reasons:
- Follow patients across the lifespan
- Faced paced environment without the acuity of inpatient care
A transition to a more regular schedule can be a welcomed change from the three twelve-hour shifts of traditional inpatient hospital care. Primary care, for the most part, operates on normal business hours. There has been a recent trend to increase patient access by offering evening and early morning hours, but this is not typically done five days per week.
Traditional business hours are ideal for nurses balancing work with home life. Nurses with children in school, partners whose work follows that of the traditional business hours, or others looking for schedule consistency may like working 9 to 5.
After getting experience as a primary care nurse, consider other ways to advance your career. One option is to complete a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree.
The experience triaging patients in primary care naturally lends itself to progressing into the role of a primary care nurse practitioner. There are also free continuing education courses available through Incredible Health.
The transition to primary care nursing can be rewarding and fun. You will gain new knowledge and experience while working as a patient advocate. Let Incredible Health help you land your dream job!
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- Primary care nurse salary. ZipRecruiter.com. Accessed June 23, 2022.
- Registered Nurses. Bls.gov. Accessed June 10, 2022.
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