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Nurses take care of the sick and ailing, helping to heal people and educate the public about health practices for well-being. They work in a wide variety of settings, from hospitals, nursing homes, and private homes, to schools, colleges, and even business offices. The American Nurses Association defines nursing as “the protection, promotion, and optimization of health and abilities, prevention of illness and injury, facilitation of healing, alleviation of suffering through the diagnosis and treatment of human response, and advocacy in the care of individuals, families, groups, communities, and populations.”

In early times people tended to the sick or injured in their homes. The nursing profession started to take root and become more organized in the late 19th century. Events that laid the foundation for the field include: Florence Nightingale’s nurse education programs in England; the creation of a program in the United States, the Nurse Society of Philadelphia, that trained women to care for mothers during and after childbirth; and the growth of hospitals in highly populated urban and industrialized areas, which increased the demand for caregivers. In the mid-20th century, advanced practice nursing emerged, in which nurses specialized in certain hospital settings, such as intensive care, and were trained to provide a variety of primary care services.

The types of jobs within the nursing profession include registered nurses; licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses; nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners; and nurse assistants and orderlies. Nursing duties vary depending on the specialty and the work environment. In general, nurses work as part of a team of medical caregivers to create health care plans for patients.

The most popular job in the nursing profession is registered nurse. In 2018, there more than 3 million registered nurses employed in the United States, according to the Department of Labor (DOL). Registered nurses record patients’ medical histories and symptoms, administer medicines and treatments, help perform medical tests and procedures, teach patients and their families how to manage treatment at home, and more.

Licensed practical and licensed vocational nurses support the work of registered nurses and doctors. Many of their tasks are similar to those of registered nurses, however, they are not permitted to administer medications or perform medical procedures. 

Nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners are also known as advanced practice registered nurses. They may work independently or collaborate with physicians, and their duties vary depending on the state in which they work. Generally, they are responsible for providing primary and specialty health care; they may prescribe medications, perform medical tests, operate and monitor medical equipment, conduct research, and teach. Nurse anesthetists provide anesthesia during surgical procedures. Nurse midwives provide care to women and deliver babies. Nurse practitioners typically provide advanced nursing services to certain populations, such as children or older adults.

Another popular job in the nursing field is nursing assistant or orderly, also known as nursing aide. The DOL reported that more than 1.5 million nursing assistants and orderlies worked in the United States in 2018. Nursing assistants and orderlies provide basic care to patients in hospitals and in nursing homes, such as bathing patients, helping them dress, measuring vital signs, and serving meals. Other nursing specialties in the field are acute care nurses, advanced practice psychiatric nurses, clinical nurse specialists, and critical care nurses.

In 2020, the U.S. hospitals industry generated $1.2 trillion in revenue, the nursing care facilities industry generated $145.3 billion in revenue, the hospices and palliative care centers industry brought in $28.6 billion in revenue, according to a report by the research group IBISWorld. Nurses also are increasingly working for in-home senior care organizations. IBISWorld reported that the in-home senior care franchises industry was a $12 billion business in 2019, up from $9 billion in 2016, and is growing steadily due to increased demand for nursing services for the aging baby boomer population.