What does a medical-surgical (med-surg) Nurse Do?

As the largest—and arguably broadest—nursing specialty in the medical field, med-surg nursing covers a tremendous amount of potential duties and responsibilities. In a nutshell, med-surg nurses play a vital role in the healthcare system by providing comprehensive and holistic care to patients in both surgical and non-surgical settings.

See also: What Does Medical-Surgical (Med-Surg) Nursing Mean in Medical Terms?

However, that definition of work doesn’t really help you visualize the actual work involved in the field, and new nurses who might otherwise be interested in this specialty often find themselves hesitant because of how broadly defined the workload can be.

In this article, we’ll explore some of the common responsibilities that med-surg nurses encounter in their day-to-day practice.

What Is Med-Surg Nursing?

Let’s start with the basics: What exactly is med-surg nursing? What type of nursing does this specialty even cover?

Broadly defined, med-surg nursing is a nursing specialty that focuses on the care of adult patients with a wide range of medical and surgical conditions. Med-surg nurses work in hospitals, clinics, ambulatory care centers, and other healthcare facilities. 

Basically, if a patient comes to a hospital or non-specialty clinic for a procedure, they will be interacting with med-surg nurses to some degree. Any nursing care that does not clearly fall into another well-defined specialty—such as pediatric care, emergency room nursing, or cardiac cath lab nursing, for instance—will often be shuffled into med-surg nursing by default. 

See also: What Is a Cath Lab Nursing Specialty? The Ultimate Guide 

As a result of this wide purview, med-surg nurses are considered the backbone of the healthcare system, providing effective and empathetic care for patients throughout their entire hospital stays, from admission to discharge.

Med-Surg Nursing Responsibilities

As you can probably see, med-surg nursing is by far the hardest nursing specialty to define. As with any other nursing specialty, the roles and responsibilities of a facility’s med-surg nurses will depend heavily on the common procedures and patient caseload of that facility. 

With all that said, here are some of the common responsibilities you might be asked to handle as a med-surg nurse:

Assessment and Monitoring 

Med-surg nurses are responsible for conducting thorough assessments of their patients and monitoring each patient’s condition and needs throughout that patient’s stay in the facility. 

This monitoring includes checking vital signs, evaluating symptoms, and tracking the progress of the patient's condition. This ongoing monitoring helps nurses identify any changes or complications, in turn helping the rest of the patient’s team identify worrying developments and intervene when necessary.

As part of this monitoring and assessment, med-surg nurses must be prepared to handle medical emergencies and act quickly and decisively should a critical situation arise. They are trained in basic life support (BLS) and often also possess advanced cardiac life support (ACLS) certification, depending on the requirements of their facility. 

Given their close relationship with the patient and their role in monitoring the patient’s condition, med-surg nurses are often the first responders during a crisis, providing immediate lifesaving and stabilization care until specialized teams arrive.

Hands-On Care: Medication Administration and Wound Care 

In addition to providing critical support to the other medical staff, med-surg nurses also provide active, hands-on care to their patients.

One of the main roles associated with med-surg nursing is the administration of medicine to patients in their care. As a med-surg nurse, you’ll be well-versed in medication management, including dosage calculations, understanding drug interactions, and monitoring for potential side effects. 

Solid organizational skills are crucial for this responsibility, in particular, as you will be managing the medication schedule for multiple patients under your care.

In addition, med-surg nurses working in a post-surgical setting provide both specialized and non-specialized wound care. At a basic level, these med-surg nurses are well-versed in assessing, cleaning, and dressing wounds, supporting the patient’s ability to heal quickly and stave off infections along the way. 

Med-surg nurses often collaborate with wound care specialists, providing personalized care to individual patients and tailoring their treatment to that patient’s unique needs.

Patient Education

Another huge—and often understated—aspect of med-surg nursing is the nurse’s role in helping to educate and inform the patient.

Med-surg nurses often work directly with patients and their families, helping everyone understand the patient’s medical condition, treatment plan, and self-care techniques. As a med-surg nurse, you’ll need to explain complex medical jargon in a way that patients can understand, helping them make informed decisions throughout their stay in the facility and after. 

Patients leaving a facility will be asked to remember complex care instructions and the next steps in their treatment plan, in addition to long-term lifestyle modifications and other holistic advice. As a med-surg nurse, you will be helping each patient internalize these instructions—and their practical importance to the patient’s life—throughout that patient’s stay in the facility.

In some cases, wearable technologies have lessened the burden on patients when it comes to tracking progress and remembering care instructions. Check out our article on the following topic: Is Wearable Technology Shaping Healthcare, Present, and Future?

Patient Advocacy

As with many nursing roles, the med-surg nurse develops a particularly close bond with the patient throughout the course of their care. While medical specialists, physicians, and surgeons are typically only interacting with the patient during a procedure or treatment, the nurse will be seeing the patient before, during, and after that procedure. 

This additional time with the patient means that nurses have the unique perspective needed to advocate for the patient's wants and needs throughout their stay in the facility. This is particularly important in the course of surgical procedures when the patient is often not capable of self-advocating.

To this end, med-surg nurses act as a liaison between patients and the healthcare system, ensuring their voices are heard.

Collaboration and Communication

In addition to their patient-centered responsibilities, med-surg nurses must also work effectively on the greater medical team. This team may include physicians, surgeons, pharmacists, physical therapists, social workers, and other nurses. 

Throughout the patient's stay, med-surg nurses provide updates on patient progress, share vital information, and actively participate in care planning and decision-making.

Getting Started in Med-Surg Nursing

The first step in becoming a med-surg nurse is understanding the expectations and responsibilities associated with the role. This can be easier said than done in a specialty that is this broadly defined.

While all of the responsibilities outlined above are integral to the med-surg nursing role, they are by no means exhaustive: There are plenty of other responsibilities you may be asked to handle once you become a med-surg nurse.

And this variation is actually one of the major draws to becoming a med-surg nurse. While many other nursing roles are condensed into a few narrow responsibilities, the variation in the daily work of a med-surg nurse can be refreshing and exciting. If you’re able to handle the demands and stress that come with the territory, med-surg nursing might be the perfect fit for you!

To learn more about the entire field of med-surg nursing, check out our Ultimate Guide to Med-Surg Nursing! We also cover a huge range of other nursing and nursing-adjacent topics on our per-diem nursing blog

Thanks for reading!

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