As the largest registered nursing specialty area, medical-surgical nursing is believed to account for nearly one-sixth of the entire profession. Now considered the foundation for nursing practice, medical-surgical nursing has quickly evolved from an entry-level position into a highly specialized area that requires mastery of specific skills. Medical-surgical nurses serve as the vital backbone for all adult healthcare settings, including hospitals, clinics, emergency rooms, outpatient surgical centers, ambulatory care facilities, and even battlefields. While other nurses typically focus on one disease or body region, medical-surgical nurses provide high-quality treatment for patients with virtually any adult health condition both before and after surgery.


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, medical-surgical nurses and other RNs earn an average annual salary of $68,910, which could be equivalent to a mean hourly wage of $33.13. Medical-surgical nurses who work in general hospitals earn slightly more at $70,590, but those employed in outpatient care centers make the highest average yearly wage at $74,100.

Beginning Salary

After graduating from nursing school, new medical-surgical nurses can expect to land in the bottom 10 percentile of earnings with an average yearly salary of around $45,630. However, medical-surgical nurses with additional years of experience who move into supervisory positions can expect to earn upwards of $96,320. Those who receive a master’s education for an APN position in medical-surgical nursing could even earn a six-figure salary over $125,000.

Key Responsibilities

Due to the fact that the workload given to medical-surgical nurses is consistently changing, they must be prepared to wear multiple hats while caring for four to seven patients at once. It’s not uncommon for medical-surgical nurses to test a patient’s blood sugar level, conduct a blood transfusion, and record a stroke patient’s vitals all within the span of one hour. Medical-surgical nurses responsible for performing patient assessments, planning nursing interventions, administering treatments, providing medications, keeping patient records, and communicating with other healthcare providers about their patients’ care. Many medical-surgical nurses also will be involved in discharging patients to rehab centers or their homes and admitting new patients.

Necessary Skills

Medical-surgical nurses care for patients of all ages with all sorts of health conditions, so they must be compassionate for treating all patients equally. Critical thinking help medical-surgical nurses carefully assess their patients, analyze medical records, and create creative treatment plans. Since patients’ conditions can flip-flop within seconds, medical-surgical nurses must have the flexibility to think quickly on their feet and the organizational skills to keep all of the medical records tidy. Solid interpersonal skills are required because medical-surgical nurses must collaborate with other healthcare providers and teach their patients about living with their condition. Analytical, technical, time management, and leadership skills are also essential.

Degree and Education Requirements

Medical-surgical nurses must be appropriately licensed to practice in their state. Therefore, it’s required that medical-surgical nurses following one of three pathways towards becoming a registered nurse. You can choose to complete a hospital-based nursing diploma, earn a two-year associate’s degree in nursing (ADN), or achieve a four-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). Regardless of your chosen route, you’ll need to graduate from a nursing school that has been fully approved by the CCNE or ACEN for solid nursing education. Returning to graduate school and receiving a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree is also possible for medical-surgical nurses looking to advance into the leadership roles of Nurse Practitioner (NP) or Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS).

Pros and Cons of the Position

Many medical-surgical nurses enjoy this specialty because of the variety that accompanies every shift and keeps them always on their toes. There’s no such thing as boredom when it comes to medical-surgical nursing. Medical-surgical nurses also learn in-depth knowledge about various surgical procedures and are given the chance to treat virtually every condition known to mankind. Not only does medical-surgical nursing come with a good salary potential and high job growth, but it also offers the emotional rewards of helping patients with diverse ailments recover. On the flip side, medical-surgical nursing is one of the most demanding specialties in which nurses are given heavy caseloads and forced to work odd night or weekend shifts. Medical-surgical nurses can become over-stressed, complete physically exhausting tasks, and possibly become exposed to infectious diseases too.

Getting Started

Once you’ve completed your nursing education, the first step towards becoming a medical-surgical nurse will be to become an RN by passing your state’s National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) examination. From there, you’ll have the credentials needed to start competing for beginning positions in the medical-surgical nursing specialty. Since medical-surgical nursing has been considered the “first stop” for RNs for years, you may find that some healthcare facilities don’t have enough openings available. In this case, you’ll need to build your resume further with internship and other entry-level work experience to get an edge. After you’ve worked in medical-surgical nursing for at least two years, you may want to consider becoming board certified (RN-BC) through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). For medical-surgical nursing, you’ll need to have at least 2,000 hours of practice time and pass a computer-based test with 175 multiple-choice questions.

Future Outlook

Demand for healthcare services is expected to grow exponentially over the next decade due to the large aging baby boomer population, increasing prevalence of chronic conditions, and improved access to insurance from federal reforms. As with other RN specialties, employment of medical-surgical nurses is expected to skyrocket much faster than normal at the rapid rate of 19 percent before 2022, thus creating the need for 526,800 new RNs nationwide. Since technology has made it possible for more patients to get treated in outpatient care centers, ambulatory care settings, and even physicians’ offices, the most growth will be there. Medical-surgical nurses with a bachelor’s degree and related experience will be best off.

Overall, medical-surgical nursing is the ideal specialty area for aspiring nurses who love to be challenged, thrive when working with multiple patients, and enjoy learning about a wide variety of medical conditions. From ambulatory to total care, medical-surgical nurses are expected to remain versatile to provide holistic treatment to patients with diverse admitting diagnoses. Those interested in the multi-faceted profession of medical-surgical care can make a difference in people’s lives every day by providing the physical and emotional healing patients need most.

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