What Is a Med-Surg Nurse?

medical surgical nurse checks patient iv bag in hospital wing
medical surgical nurse checks patient iv bag in hospital wing

Med-Surg Nurse Fast Facts

What you’ll do: Provide nursing care to patients with a wide variety of medical concerns including illness, injury, surgery recovery, and more.

Where you’ll work: Medical-surgical units in hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, and outpatient care centers

Degree you’ll need: At least an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)

Median annual salary: $77,600


What Is a Medical-Surgical Nurse?

Med-surg nurses work in the general units, known as med-surg units, in hospitals. They monitor and care for patients recovering from surgery, serious illness, an emergency-department stay, or patients who don’t need specialized care. That means that almost everyone who is admitted to a hospital will be cared for by a med-surg nurse at some point during their stay. It also means hospitals have a lot of med-surg nursing jobs to fill. In fact, so many registered nurses (RNs) work as med-surg nurses that the Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses (AMSN) calls med-surg nursing the largest nursing specialty in the country.

Steps to Become a Med-Surg Nurse

Use these steps as a guide to pursue a career as a med-surg nurse.

Do some research to determine if this specialty resonates with you.

Med-surg nursing can be a great fit if you don’t want to be limited to a specific type of care. Patients stay on the med-surg floor when they have any medical concern that needs hospital-level monitoring but not specialized care. That means that all patients who aren’t staying in units such as the intensive care unit (ICU), cardiac care unit (CCU), or any other specialized units will be cared for by med-surg nurses. Patients who have already been seen in the emergency department or who are recovering from an operation will stay on a med-surg floor as well.

Med-surg nurses need to know how to provide care for patients in any number of situations. They’re responsible for administering medication, performing treatments, monitoring patient vital signs, communicating with doctors and family members, as well as ensuring patients receive safe and appropriate care during their stay.

“The variety that med-surg offers is the challenge, but it’s also the reward because we get to see patients in a multitude of aspects and for multiple reasons,” says Alissa Brown, BSN, MSN, RN, a clinical nurse educator with University of Utah Health and co-host of the Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses’ Med-Surg Moments podcast.

Check out schools and programs.

You can find nursing programs at accredited colleges and universities all over the country. Options for nursing education include:

• Full-time programs
• Part-time programs
• Two-year programs
Four-year programs
• On-campus programs
• Online programs
• Hybrid programs

Having so many options means you can choose the educational program that’s best for your budget and lifestyle. You can take time to find a program that aligns with your career goals. For instance, some schools work closely with local hospitals or health systems and can prepare their graduates for roles in those facilities. Other schools might have a great reputation in your local community or offer career placement assistance.

Any school you choose should be accredited. Accreditation shows that a school and program meet all state requirements and will give you the education you need. It also means your credits will transfer to other accredited schools if you ever decide to go back to school and advance your education. Plus, you’ll need to be enrolled in an accredited program if you’re planning to apply for federal student aid.

ADN or BSN?

Registered nurses looking to work as med-surg nurses can choose from two degree paths:

Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN): ADNs take two years to complete and are offered by community colleges and trade schools. They’re a great option if you want to jump into your med-surg nursing career quickly.
Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN): BSNs take four years to complete and are offered by traditional colleges and universities. They’re a great idea if you want an advanced education and the ability to apply for higher-level RN roles.

It’s not uncommon for nurses with an ADN to be hired in a med-surg unit as new nursing graduates. However, some employers do require a BSN for any nursing role. Either degree allows you to earn RN licensure in every state

Submit your applications.

The exact requirements for program admission will depend on the school you choose. Some schools might have their own exams or entrance prerequisites for nursing students. No matter what school you choose, you can count on needing your high school diploma or GED before you begin. Other standard requirements include:

• Completion of math and science courses at least a high school level
• Solid grades in any prior education
• SATS, ACTs, or an admissions exam
• An essay
• An admissions interview
• Letters of recommendation from teachers or employers
• A criminal background check

Complete your coursework and graduate.

You’ll need to meet some standard requirements no matter what school or degree path you chose. Although your overall education might be different in a BSN program than in an ADN program, the nursing courses you’ll take will need to cover the same material. You’ll take core nursing classes that will prepare you for licensing and your nursing career. These classes will cover essential topics such as nursing practice, patient assessment, and nursing ethics. You’ll also need to complete a set number of clinical hours at a local hospital or healthcare facility. These hours allow you to gain the supervised experience you’ll need to work as a med-surg nurse. 

Take and pass the NCLEX.

students in computer exam room take nclex exam

All nurses need to take and pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) before they can earn licensure. The NCLEX-RN tests your knowledge of the topics you covered in your nursing program. It makes sure you’ve mastered medical terminology, anatomy, pharmacology, and other important nursing subjects. The exam takes about five hours to complete and is computer-based. Your results will be sent to your state’s board of nursing.

Get your RN license.

woman stands in front of mailbox looking through mail

You’ll be eligible for RN licensure once you’ve completed your education and passed the NCLEX-RN. Each state’s board of nursing sets its own requirements for licensure. Generally, you’ll need to send information about your education along with a criminal background check and FBI fingerprinting to your state’s board. Additional requirements might include a recent photograph, current CPR certification, and letters of recommendation. 

Start working.

med-surg nurse checks patients iv

You generally won’t need prior nursing experience before you can take on a med-surg nursing role. Many roles in this specialty are entry-level and are perfect fits for new nursing school graduates. Once you gain some experience, however, you may be able to consider leadership roles. It can help you feel more confident in your role as a med-surg nurse and help you provide better patient care. Brown says it can take time and experience to master the knowledge you’ll need as a med-surg nurse.

“You could see anything on a med-surg floor,” Brown says. “It literally is medical or surgical. So you need to give yourself permission to take the time to learn what your patient population is going to look like in your place of practice and allow yourself the time to develop those skills and become the expert in those patient populations.”

Consider certification.

med surg nurse talks with patient post surgery

There are no required certifications for med-surg nurses, but that doesn’t mean pursuing certification isn’t a good idea. Certification is a great way to show employers that you have the skills, knowledge, and dedication it takes to succeed in your career. It can help you stand out among other applicants and could set you up to be considered for higher-level roles.

Med-surg nurses can earn the Medical-Surgical Nursing Certification (MEDSURG-BC) from the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) or the Certified Medical-Surgical Registered Nurse (CMSRN) from the Medical-Surgical Nursing Certification Board (MSNCB).

To earn either certification you’ll need:
• An active RN license
• At least two years of full-time RN experience
• At least 2,000 hours of experience working as a med-surg nurse in the past three years

The ANCC also requires 30 hours of continuing education related to med-surg nursing within the past three years. The two certifications are very similar. Both are accredited and can potentially boost your career.

Keep your credentials current.

nurse and lead nurse discuss paperwork on tablet

You’ll need to ensure your RN license is active and in good standing to keep working as a med-surg nurse. Each state has its own requirements for RN license renewal.

Generally, renewal is required every two to three years and requires:

• A renewal fee
• Proof you’ve worked the minimum number of hours as an RN set by your state
• Proof you’ve taken at least your state’s minimum number of continuing education hours for renewal.

Consider an advanced degree.

advanced practice nurse talks with patient privately

Advancing your education is one of the best ways to boost your nursing career. Earning a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree may allow you to work as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). As an APRN, you can take on more responsibilities and potentially move into leadership roles.

If you want to stay in med-surg nursing after you become an APRN, you can look into nurse practitioner (NP) or clinical nurse specialist (CNS) roles. As an NP, you could provide advanced care by assessing, diagnosing, and prescribing treatment to med-surg patients. As a CNS, you could lead the med-surg nursing team at a hospital, ensuring every RN on staff has the education, skills, and support they needed to provide the best patient care. 

OR Nurse and Med-Surg Nurse: Are They the Same?

Although the names may lead you to believe these roles are the same, they are in fact very different. Med-surg nurses provide care to a wide range of patients on a med-surg hospital floor or unit. The patients nurses see in these units are sometimes recovering from operations (but not always.) Med-surg units also treat patients who need care for an illness, infection, or injury.

OR nurses work in the operating room. They provide nursing care during the operation itself. Some OR nurses also provide care immediately before or after the operation. They don’t see patients at other times during their hospital stay, and they don’t provide care to patients who aren’t having surgery. 

Where Do Med-Surg Nurses Work?

Most med-surg nurses work in hospitals on med-surg units, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be limited to only one workplace. Med-surg nurses can also find work in:

  • Outpatient care centers
  • Inpatient specialty clinics
  • Insurance companies
  • Medical practices
  • Urgent care centers
  • Home health care agencies
  • Skilled nursing facilities
  • Correctional facilities
  • Government agencies 

Salary and Job Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that registered nurses made an average salary of $77,600 in 2020. The BLS doesn’t track salary data for individual RN specialties, but it does report that RNs who are employed in hospitals, the most common workplace for med-surg nurses, earned a median salary of $85,020 in 2021. This isn’t true for everyone, though. Your specific salary as a med-surg nurse will depend on factors like your experience, education, certifications, and specific employer.

The BLS also predicts a 9% growth for nursing roles by 2030. The increase has been especially sharp in hospitals and specialties such as med-surg nursing. In a recent article, The Wall Street Journal reported that this turnover created an incredibly high demand for RNs at hospitals across the country. As a result, many hospitals have increased their starting salaries and benefits packages to attract nurses to these roles.

Med-surg nursing is a fast-paced and demanding specialty. Nurses in this role often don’t know what to expect from one shift to another. As the patients that come through the unit change, your day as a med-surg nurse will change along with them. You’ll need to be prepared to handle the care and treatment of new patients and new medical concerns throughout your work week or even a single shift.

If you work best when you have set routine and do the same tasks at work each day, med-surg nursing probably isn’t for you. However, if you like the idea of spending your workdays caring for patients with a wide variety of conditions and needs, this specialty might be a great fit. Med-surg nursing is also a great way to gain experience in nursing. It can help you build your career and teach you the skills you’ll need to advance.


Written and reported by:

Stephanie Behring

Contributing Writer

alissa brown

With professional insight from:

Alissa Brown, BSN, MSN, RN

Clinical Nurse Educator