The popularity of crime scene television shows and police dramas has brought renewed interest in forensics to a new generation of students and professionals. Offering a combination of basic medical training and specialized investigative skills, forensic nurses are crucially important players in aiding police departments, stopping criminal activity and enforcing the law.
Forensic nurses are skilled registered nurses (RNs) with expertise in investigating crime scenes and treating victims of abuse and accidents. They work in hospital emergency rooms, women's clinics, morgues, prisons and courtrooms, and, of course, at crime scenes. The role of a forensic nurse is to bridge the gap between medicine and the law, which is why they complete rigorous training as an RN before entering forensic studies.
In their varied work settings, forensic nurses may perform many different tasks, ranging from investigating accidents and establishing a legal cause of death, to treating victims of rape and abuse. Depending on the area of expertise, the daily responsibilities of a forensic nurse may involve:
Examining and treating victims of physical or sexual violence.
Collecting crime scene evidence in police investigations.
Examining dead bodies in the morgue to determine cause of death and collect evidence.
Providing medical treatment to inmates in the prison system .
Investigating prison medical facilities or long-term care facilities.
Acting as an expert witness in a court trial or other legal proceedings.
Forensic nurses can choose from such specializations as:
- Forensic nurse investigator or examiner
- Forensic psychiatric nurse
- Sexual assault examiner
- Correctional nurse
- Death investigator
- Medical legal consultant
- Medical legal death investigator
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In order to become a forensic nurse, you'll need to complete general education and prerequisites, earn the appropriate degree, and pass standardized testing as required by your state. This step-by-step guide on how to become a forensic nurse explains each step in-depth, while also offering actionable advice on getting started in this field.
Decide which level of nursing education to pursue.
According to Dr. Marcy Tanner, EdD, RN, CNE, Southwestern Oklahoma State University RN to BSN Coordinator, students should begin their journey by deciding how many years they want to spend in school, whether that's at the licensed professional nurse (LPN) level, at the associate degree level (ADN), or at the bachelor's degree level (BSN).
"This may be determined by the student's future goals, the location and specialty in which they intend to practice, the local and area job market, and the time and money they have available to spend for their education," says Tanner.
Most associate degree programs take two years to complete, while bachelor's degree programs typically require a four-year commitment.
Pick a school and program, and complete your prerequisites.
Once you've settled on a program, you'll need to complete the general education requirements. Typically, these include coursework in English, advanced math, human health, and science. But that's not all, notes Tanner. "At the baccalaureate level, nursing students take a wide variety of courses in sciences, written communication, math, history and government, humanities, technology skills, and cultural and social diversity courses."
Earn an associate or bachelor's degree in nursing.
Completing a two- or four-year degree program in nursing at an accredited college or university is the first concrete step in preparing for a career as a forensic nurse.
Nursing-specific coursework focuses mainly on the human body and human health, including the following topics: Professional nursing practice, nursing assessment, nursing theory and research, health promotion, leadership and management in nursing, global health, and critical care nursing.
In addition to classroom instruction, nursing students may also be required to participate in clinical rotations at a nearby hospital or clinic for hands-on experience.
Take the NCLEX-RN exam and become a registered nurse.
In order to practice as an RN, you need to be licensed in your state and pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN). Once you complete an accredited nursing program, you will be eligible to take this exam.
Pursue an education in forensic nursing.
Once you have earned the right to call yourself a registered nurse, it's time to pursue the next level of your education - the study of forensic nursing.
"Many nurses choose a specialty that best suits their interests and abilities," says Tanner. "It is always advantageous to have a variety and balance of both generalist nurses, who can adapt to a wide variety of settings with ease, and specialist nurses with a deep understanding and expertise of a given field."
In order to work as a forensic nurse, you'll need to pursue a master's degree or certificate program in forensic nursing. Courses common to forensic nursing programs include criminology, preservation of evidence, victimology, forensic law, and child and elder abuse.
Forensic nurses are certified by state organizations as well as national and international organizations such as the International Association of Forensic Nurses. Certification is especially important for those who want to work with the police or government agencies, in the legal field and as Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANEs).
Apply for entry-level jobs in the field of forensic nursing.
Hospitals, medical clinics, police departments and government agencies typically require a background check and psychological exam before hiring new candidates.
Dr. Marcy Tanner
To learn more about careers in nursing, we reached out to Dr. Marcy Tanner, EdD, RN, CNE, Southwestern Oklahoma State University RN to BSN Coordinator.
Q. What are some common characteristics that make a great forensic nurse?
A great nurse is one who has empathy for patients, excellent written and oral communication skills, the ability to manage difficult experiences and emotions, organizational skills and the ability to make decisions quickly, and an ability to multi-task and focus on details. A nurse should be able to work with a diverse group of patients and coworkers. A forensic nurse must also have these skills, in addition to knowledge of how to collect potential evidence correctly while showing respect, and the ability to communicate complicated concepts in an understandable manner.
Q. Are today's nurses required to use computers and technology on a daily basis?
With the advent of the mandate for electronic health records in 2014 (a part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009), public and private health care providers and organizations have moved to electronic charting. This allows for better information security and privacy, helps heath care providers coordinate a patient's care across multiple settings (inpatient, community, and home), and allows better access of records and health information by patients. All of this means that a nurse is expected to interact with technology on a daily basis. Nursing informatics is a growing specialty of nursing with a high demand for technologically-savvy nurses. Finally, there has been an increase in the use of telemedicine, using technology to deliver care remotely.
Q. What factors should students consider when they're picking a nursing school or program?
Potential students should consider whether the program they are applying to is regionally accredited. This is not the same as having State Board of Nursing approval. For example, all programs within the State of Oklahoma must have Oklahoma Board of Nursing approval in order to operate. In addition to this approval, the school a student chooses should be accredited through either the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN).
This voluntary, rigorous accreditation assures the student that the program is committed to excellence and meets high standards as judged by experts in the field of nursing education. I would also encourage students to consider the class size (faculty to student ratio) both in the classroom and the clinical setting, the number of clinical hours offered by the program, the variety of clinical experiences provided, and the pass rate trends for the NCLEX (licensure) examination. I would also encourage students to consider the cost of their education, the availability of faculty members, the availability of financial aid if needed, and the services provided by the school.
For example, Southwestern Oklahoma State University is fully accredited by ACEN as well as approved by the Oklahoma Board of Nursing, has a very low faculty to student ratio (maximum of 1:30 in the classroom, and 1:10 in the clinical setting), a wide variety of clinical rotations, both in rural and urban areas and in a variety of care settings, and one of the highest number of clinical hours in the state. This excellence is reflected in our high pass rates. Our most recent pass rate for the year 2014 was over 95%, far exceeding the state and national average. Finally, our tuition is very low per credit hour, and we offer a wide variety of scholarships, tuition waivers, and financial aid to assist our students. Lastly, students should consider their exposure and experience with technology. Our students have access to a multi- bed simulation lab, electronic charting, and the use of a software program that allows them easy access to the latest information on medications, lab values, and current nursing research.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered Nurses
- International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN)
Program outcomes vary according to each institution's specific curriculum, and employment opportunities are not guaranteed.