What Is a Charge Nurse? A Look at These Hands-on Nursing Leaders

When exploring potential healthcare careers, you’re drawn toward the idea of becoming a nurse. Working directly with patients and saving lives sounds like it could be the perfect job for you. But you’re also interested in putting your leadership skills to work as well. Taking on the role of a charge nurse is an excellent way to get the best of both worlds.Perhaps you’ve heard about this role or have seen a job posting mentioning it, but you’re not totally sure what life in this position would look like—and you have questions. What is a charge nurse? What is a charge nurse responsible for? What’s the difference between a charge nurse versus a nurse manager?Today, we’re answering all your questions about working as a charge nurse. Keep reading to find out if a career as a charge nurse is for you.What is a charge nurse?“I used to tell new charge nurses that they were like the ‘quarterback’ of the unit,” says Martha Paulson, former charge nurse and current clinical manager at Advantis Medical Staffing. “They’d be calling plays, knowing who needs help and reassigning as needed.”Charge nurses are like shift leaders for a hospital or department’s team of nurses. In addition to the usual nursing duties, charge nurses have another layer of responsibilities where they oversee all the other nurses in their unit.With this leadership position comes an expectation of knowledge and expertise. Charge nurses are the people who other nurses turn to with questions or for assistance. A good charge nurse is an indispensable resource for their department or facility.Because of this additional responsibility and authority, charge nurses will often need additional certifications or qualifications. For instance, they may need a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) rather than just an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN). While this isn’t necessarily a universal requirement—plenty of excellent ADN-RNs have served as charge nurses—these “extra” qualifications can help show aspiring charge nurses’ commitment to growing their nursing expertise and leadership abilities.What does a charge nurse do?A charge nurse’s duties can vary widely depending on where they work. In large hospitals, each unit will typically have its own charge nurse. Charge nurses at these facilities will have specific duties more focused on the cardiac unit, ICU, oncology or another specialty.In turn, these nurses need to have deep, expert knowledge about that area of nursing, as they are the person other nurses consult with questions or for advanced expertise.On the other hand, charge nurses at smaller facilities will often have broader duties, as they may be the only charge nurse for the whole location. They need to have a broader generalist knowledge base to answer questions for a wider range of patient issues.In general, charge nurses may find themselves training new staff, answering staff questions, setting staff patient assignments, caring for patients, covering breaks and overseeing the nursing team.Charge nurse versus nurse managerWhile the description of this job sounds quite similar to that of nurse managers—after all, they both work in supervisory positions—there are some key differences between the roles.The biggest difference between charge nurses and nurse managers is that charge nurses spend much more of their time directly working with patients, while nurse managers typically do not work with patients unless extremely short-staffed. In turn, nurse managers focus more on administrative tasks, like scheduling, budgeting or representing nursing units in meetings with upper management. Additionally, charge nurses are typically the leaders for an individual shift of a nursing unit instead of the entire unit at all hours.As the job title suggests, nurse managers are in charge of managing the nurses from a personnel perspective. Charge nurses are concentrated on patient care and healthcare matters. While there is certainly overlap in these areas, charge nurses are typically a rung below administrative-focused nurse managers in an organization’s hierarchy—if an issue can’t be resolved by a charge nurse, it often escalates up to nurse management. 

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