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Medical-Surgical Nursing Specialty: Guide to Med-Surg Jobs

MedSurg Nursing Specialty Ultimate Jobs Guide


Whether you have been working as a nurse for years or are just starting nursing school, specialization is bound to be on your mind sooner or later, and it is never too early or too late to explore career options. In fact, now is the perfect time to read everything there is to know about medical-surgical nursing (Med-Surg). Read on to find the answers to all your questions in this ultimate Med-Surg guide.

Table of Contents

What Does Med-Surg Stand For?

Med-Surg is the abbreviation for medical-surgical nursing. According to the Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses, it is the largest nursing specialty in the United States. This specialty is found in all healthcare environments, including hospitals, outpatient care facilities, homes, and telemedicine settings.

What Does Med-Surg Mean in Medical Terms?

By definition, a Med-Surg nurse cares for patients suffering from a number of medical concerns as well as for patients preparing for or recovering from surgery. Nurses with this specialty have extensive knowledge and expertise in the nursing field, making them natural leaders in a healthcare team.

What Does a Med-Surg Nurse Do?

Med Surg bedside

Since Med-Surge nurses care for patients with both surgical and nonsurgical conditions, their duties cover a wide range of tasks; in general terms, Med-Surge nurses care for patients through the nursing process of assessment, planning, intervention, implementation, and evaluation. Furthermore, they collaborate with other healthcare professionals for the best possible treatment of their patients.

More specifically, for those wondering, “What exactly is the role of a Med-Surg nurse?” Med-Surg responsibilities (see example) can include all of the following:

  • Recording patients’ medical histories and vital signs as well as all care information
  • Administering and recording prescribed medications
  • Reporting adverse reactions to treatments and initiating corrective action
  • Preparing equipment and assisting physicians in the examination and treatment of patients
  • Monitoring and adjusting equipment used with patients as well as interpreting and recording information obtained from the equipment
  • Providing bedside care for patients
  • Changing dressings, inserting catheters, starting IVs, etc.
  • Responding in life-saving situations
  • Educating patients and family members on surgical procedures and on how to manage their illnesses or injuries
  • Participating in discharge planning

What Is a Med-Surg Unit in a Hospital?

Med surge nurse at hospital

Med-Surge units serve the general patient population hospitalized for various causes, such as illness, surgery, testing, or observation. Med-Surge nursing staff collaborate with physicians, pharmacists, and physical, occupational, speech, and respiratory therapists to provide each patient with the care they need.

These are some of the reasons patients might find themselves in a Med-Surg unit (see example):

  • Head and neck surgeries
  • Orthopedic procedures, such as total hip and knee replacements, rotator cuff repairs, and carpal tunnel surgery
  • General abdominal surgery, such as appendectomy, cholecystectomy (gallbladder removal), hysterectomy, colon surgery, and hernia surgery
  • Urologic procedures
  • Breast and gynecological procedures
  • Diabetes
  • Stroke
  • Wound management
  • Infectious diseases
  • Thyroid ablations using radioactive iodine


How to Become a Med-Surg Nurse

There are two ways to become a certified Med-Surg nurse. However, regardless of the certification path you choose, there are specific requirements that you will need to fulfill.

  1. You must be a registered nurse (RN) with a valid US license.
  2. You must have practiced as an RN in a medical-surgical setting for at least two years.
  3. You must have accumulated at least 2,000 hours of practice in a Med-Surge setting.

American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)

The ANCC offers the Medical-Surgical Nursing Certification (MEDSURG-BC™), which is accredited by the Accreditation Board for Specialty Nursing Certification. The credential is valid for five years as long as nurses maintain their nursing licenses and can be renewed after that time. To obtain the certification, nurses must meet the eligibility requirements mentioned above and pass a competency-based examination. The exam costs $395 for non-members and $295 for members of the American Nurses Association.

Medical-Surgical Nursing Certification Board (MSNCB)

Another certification option is through the MSNCB, which has offered nurses the Certified Medical-Surgical Registered Nurse (CMSRN®) credential since 2003, certifying over 38,000 nurses. In addition to the standard eligibility requirements, the regular application cost is $375 or $255 for members of the Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses (AMSN). This certification must also be renewed after five years. In addition, MSNCB offers the FailSafe Certification Program™ for facilities that would like to help at least ten of their nurses to certify within one year. This program allows nurses to take the certification exam more than once and only charges facilities once each nurse passes the exam. The FailSafe Certification Program™ is an excellent alternative that benefits both facilities and nurses.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Med-Surg Nurse?

The time it takes to become a Med-Surg nurse is largely dependent on the path taken to become an RN. The fastest way to become an RN is through an Associate Degree in Nursing (ASN), which takes approximately two years. A longer but generally preferred option is to obtain a Bachelor’s in Nursing (BSN), which takes four years to complete.

Nursing school for med surg

New RNs are actually often hired to work in the medical-surgical setting right after graduation but need to work in the area and accrue at least 2,000 clinical hours before they can apply for a Med-Surg certification. In summary, nurses can work in the medical-surgical setting after two to four years of study, but it takes a total of at least four to six years starting from the beginning of nursing school for a person to become a Med-Surg certified nurse.

Nurses who don’t happen to work in the Med-Surg setting might be wondering how they can manage to obtain those 2,000 hours required for certification. Thankfully, there are options besides staff positions to help nurses build up these hours, such as PRN work, which allows nurses to pick up extra shifts in any setting they are interested in, thereby meeting certification requirements for clinical hours and supplementing their income.

What Is Med-Surg Nursing Like?

In Med-Surg, nurses work directly with patients carrying out many different tasks, such as changing IVs, dressing wounds, or prepping patients for surgery. It is a fast-paced specialty in which nurses must be able to make decisions quickly in order to save lives.

Nurses in this specialty must prioritize tasks to care for the patients that need their assistance the most but must also be able to collaborate with other nurses both to help and receive help when patient needs become overwhelming. Based on the complexity of their roles, it is no surprise that medical-surgical nurses must possess many nonmedical skills in addition to clinical skills.

What Makes a Good Med-Surg Nurse?

Here are some soft skills Med-Surg nurses should develop throughout their careers in addition to medical skills:

Med surg nursing skills
  • Communication Skills: Not only must Med-Surg nurses be able to communicate clearly with other healthcare professionals, but they also must educate patients and family members regarding patient treatment plans.
  • Interpersonal Skills: Med-Surg nurses are with patients all day, every day, and this role doesn’t simply imply administering meds but also supporting patients through emotionally challenging times.
  • Teaching Skills: Healthcare is not limited to treating conditions in a hospital or other medical facility; eventually, patients must go home and take care of themselves. Therefore, an essential part of Med-Surg nurses’ roles is teaching patients how to take care of themselves after discharge.
  • Teamwork: When Med-Surg nurses experience a lull in their own work, they should offer to help fellow nurses and should also accept help in moments of need.
  • Emotional Intelligence: In this unit, patients are often experiencing pain, fear, or anger and fellow healthcare professionals are also under a lot of stress, so it is crucial to be able to navigate others’ negative feelings without taking outbursts personally or feeling overwhelmed.
  • Customer Service: Most patients’ experiences in a facility are with nurses, which is why nurses are key to patient satisfaction. Even though patients in the Med-Surg unit are usually going through hard times, thoughtful, caring nurses have the power to significantly brighten their days.


Why Choose Med-Surg Nursing

Although there is no one-size-fits-all in nursing, Med-Surg is an excellent area for all nurses to work at least at the beginning of their careers. First, it is the largest nursing specialty in the US, implying ongoing demand for new nurses. Furthermore, Med-Surg nurses’ duties are so diverse that working in this area is an invaluable opportunity to obtain nursing experience and fill various roles. Not only do Med-Surge nurses fulfill different responsibilities, but they can also work in several different facilities, allowing them to discover what type of work they like the most and what facilities are the best fit for them. Once new nurses become experienced nurses, they will be better prepared to make decisions regarding specialization. Still, regardless of the specialization they choose, Med-Surg is a great place to start.

Is Med-Surg Nursing Hard?

There are many aspects to consider to determine how difficult a nursing specialty is, and the perceived level of difficulty is also different for each person. For example, a study that compared levels of job stress among intensive care, hospice, and medical-surgical nurses found the following results:

Stressed Med Surg Nurse
  • Intensive care unit (ICU) and hospice nurses experienced significantly more stress than Med-Surg nurses regarding patients’ deaths.
  • ICU and medical-surgical nurses experienced significantly more stress than hospice nurses regarding floating—temporarily reassigning nurses to understaffed areas.
  • Med-Surg nurses reported significantly more stress than ICU and hospice nurses due to work overload and understaffing.

Evidently, different specialties come hand in hand with particular challenges. The fast-paced nature of Med-Surg implies a heavy workload with multiple responsibilities simultaneously vying for nurses’ attention.

Tips for New Med-Surg Nurses

1. Be ready to learn from everyone. The best way to succeed as a new Med-Surg nurse is to be open to learning from everyone and every situation. In addition to your preceptor, every other experienced nurse on your floor can offer valuable tips and even become a mentor. If others perceive your desire to learn, more often than not, they will be happy to share their expertise.

2. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. We often make the mistake of pretending to know everything to make a good impression. However, the more questions you ask, the more you’ll know, and the better you’ll be able to do your job. Then, others will see your rapid growth and will respect your efforts. Furthermore, asking questions is essential because a patient’s well-being is often on the line, and we should never let our egos outweigh our patients’ safety.

3. Stay flexible and prioritize. In Med-Surg, you can throw that perfectly organized schedule out the window because patients might need pain meds at the precise moment you sit down to chart, or a patient might have an adverse reaction to medication while you are trying to discharge another. Every moment of your shift, you must prioritize responsibilities.

Med surg learn from everyone

4. Offer to help, and others will certainly help you. Med-Surg is all about collaboration. On some shifts, you might end up with a set of patients that need more attention than average, and the only way you’ll survive is with others’ help. Likewise, other nurses might be overwhelmed sometimes, and you should pitch in whenever possible. Remember that Med-Surge nurses are often overworked and understaffed, so work together to reduce each other’s job stress.  

5. Be proactive and prevent nurse burnout. As a new nurse, you might not think that nurse burnout will affect you. You are probably so excited to start your career that you regularly accept working overtime and replay work scenarios in your mind after work—some even work in their dreams! However, with 49% of healthcare workers reporting burnout in a 2021 study, no nurse should think they are immune to this common nursing challenge. Read up on strategies to manage burnout so you can nip it in the bud before it significantly interferes with your mental health.

Medical-Surgical Nursing in a Nutshell

Most nurses will inevitably work in the Med-Surg setting at some point in their careers since it is the largest nursing specialty and, therefore, the area that needs nurses the most. Spending time in Med-Surg, especially at the beginning of a nursing career, is truly a blessing because no other area will offer new nurses a wider range of learning opportunities. After working for a couple of years in this setting, nurses can decide if Med-Surg is the area they wish to officially specialize in or if they want to continue exploring the vast ocean of opportunities that the nursing field offers.

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