Meet a Rehabilitation Nurse

NurseJournal Staff
Updated December 16, 2021
    What is a rehabilitation nurse? Learn how to become a rehabilitation nurse and what the work is like from this Q&A session.
    Female Hispanic nurse assisting her senior male patient with walking on the parallel bars during a therapy session. Another patient and professional are walking in the background.

    Some prospective healthcare workers may wonder, “What is a rehabilitation nurse?” This page explores job responsibilities for these nurses and includes information on how to become a rehabilitation nurse.

    Along with an interview with a rehab nurse, this page explores a typical rehabilitation nurse job description, salary expectations, and the pros and cons of the career.

    The following conversation with rehabilitation nurse Ashley Cress, RN, BSN, CBIS, describes her role and includes advice to anyone considering this line of work, such as the most challenging and most rewarding aspects of the job.

    Q&A With a Rehabilitation Nurse

    Portrait of Ashley Cress, RN, BSN, CBIS

    Ashley Cress, RN, BSN, CBIS

    Ashley Cress graduated from Samaritan Hospital School of Nursing in Troy, New York, in 2014, with an associate degree in nursing (ADN). After graduating, she joined the team at the Neuroscience and Epilepsy Monitoring Unit at Albany Medical Center in Albany, New York.

    In 2017, she relocated to Emeryville, California. Cress began working with the local Centre for Neuro Skills as a nurse within their residential setting, and in 2019, she was promoted into a clinical case manager role. In 2020, she graduated from the University of Arkansas with a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree. Outside of work, Ashley enjoys spending time with her family, reading, and cycling.


    Q: Why did you choose a career in rehabilitation nursing?

    Rehabilitation nursing was not initially a specialty of interest for me. However, while working in acute care, I wanted to be more involved in the post-acute phase of recovery. I found the idea of assisting patients in regaining their independence and improving their overall quality of life to be rewarding.

    Q: Were you interested in helping patients recovering from brain injuries specifically?

    I’ve always been interested in the neuroscience field, especially stroke-related care. Assisting patients recovering from brain injuries, whether mild or severe, is a challenging feat, but rewarding beyond measure.

    Q: What types of treatments, therapies, and services does your facility provide?

    The Centre for Neuro Skills offers a comprehensive approach to brain injury recovery. Services include physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy, as well as case management and medical oversight.

    Q: How do you work with other healthcare providers, patients, and their family members?

    The different disciplines collaborate and devise a treatment plan to maximize a patient’s recovery. Outside physician consultations are essential for diagnosing specific conditions that we can treat during the rehabilitation process, including vestibular impairments, visual deficits, etc. We encourage families to participate in the rehabilitation process as much as possible.

    With rehabilitation nursing, you are treating not just the patient, but the families, as well. By getting the families involved in their loved ones’ care early on, you can assist with decreasing caregiver burden and also provide vital brain injury education, setting families up for success once a patient discharges.

    Q: While every patient and situation is unique, what might a “typical” day look like for you as a clinical case manager?

    At the Centre for Neuro Skills, clinical case managers are responsible for managing patients’ overall rehabilitation programs. A typical day may include ensuring that patients’ authorizations are up to date, discussing patient programs with the therapists, communicating with insurance and workers’ compensation carriers, and providing an additional support system to patients and their family members.

    You can wear many hats as a clinical case manager, not only assisting with the medical care of your patients, but also by assisting with social work duties, including setting up outside services like Medicaid benefits.

    Stepping aside from my comfort zone in bedside nursing was a challenge at first, but my nursing background has proven essential in understanding and managing our patients’ complex medical care and needs.

    Q: What are some of the biggest challenges of your work?

    One of the biggest challenges in brain injury rehabilitation nursing is making sure that you are maximizing a patient’s program within the insurance-authorized timeframe. For example, it can be challenging starting a patient’s program knowing that you only have seven authorized days, but understanding how to manage those seven days is the important part.

    Q: And the greatest rewards?

    By far, the greatest reward of rehabilitation nursing is watching the progress of your patients. Witnessing your patients arrive at the facility in a wheelchair and leave walking without an assistive device is the best feeling. All of our patients are inspirational, and I am truly in awe of their perseverance and strength.

    Q: What advice would you give to individuals considering careers as rehabilitation nurses?

    The best advice was given to me by our previous medical director. To paraphrase, he said, “Always be a patient advocate. You can never go wrong when fighting for what is best for your patient.” These words are true in every aspect of nursing. When your patient is in their most vulnerable state, it is the nurse’s responsibility to ensure they are receiving the best care and therapy.

    What Does a Rehabilitation Nurse Do?

    Rehabilitation nurses work with patients recovering from serious injuries or illnesses. Typical responsibilities include working directly with patients, educating them and their families during recovery, managing administrative work and insurance matters, and acting as a vital part of the patient’s care team. Rehabilitation nurses must possess excellent communication skills to advocate for their patients, treating them and their families with empathy and respect.

    “When your patient is in their most vulnerable state, it is the nurse’s responsibility to ensure they are receiving the best care and therapy.” — Ashley Cress, RN, BSN, CBIS

    Key skills and responsibilities include:

    • Acting as part of a care team
    • Carrying out parts of the treatment plan
    • Advocating for patients
    • Educating the patient and their family on what to expect and do

    How to Become a Rehabilitation Nurse

    It takes 2-4 years to become a rehabilitation nurse and an additional two years to earn rehabilitation nurse certification.

    Graduate with an ADN or a BSN Degree

    Prospective registered nurses (RNs) can attend a two-year ADN or a four-year BSN program, but many employers require or prefer the four-year degree for more advanced work or supervisory positions. Always ensure each program’s accreditation status.

    Pass the NCLEX-RN Exam to Receive RN Licensure

    This multiple-choice national board examination covers nursing practice, how the healthcare system works, communication and patient education, and the ethical and legal aspects of nursing. After passing the examination, candidates can apply to their state boards of nursing for nursing licenses.

    Gain Experience in RN Positions

    Rehabilitation nurses work in several settings, including acute care specialty hospitals, VA hospitals, nursing homes, and rehabilitation clinics. Rehabilitation nurses work in inpatient and outpatient settings. After accruing at least two years of experience as a rehabilitation nurse, individuals can apply for rehabilitation nurse certification.

    Consider Pursuing a Rehabilitation Nurse Certification

    While certification is not legally required to work as a rehabilitation nurse, many employers require or prefer certification. Certification represents a professional’s demonstrated expertise as a rehabilitation nurse and their commitment to the profession. To become certified, each candidate must pass the certified registered rehabilitation nurse examination.

    Advance Your Career Options with a Graduate Degree

    In addition to or as an alternative to certification, individuals can pursue a master of science in nursing (MSN) or a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree. Others pursue a degree in healthcare administration or an MBA. Most master’s degrees require two years for completion, while a DNP typically takes 3-4 additional years or more.

    How Much Do Rehabilitation Nurses Make?

    The average annual rehabilitation nurse salary is $68,300, with an average hourly pay of $30.12, according to PayScale as of July 2021. This figure dips lower than the average annual wage ($75,330) or hourly pay ($36.00) of all RNs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

    Average Hourly Wage

    Source: PayScale

    Average Base Salary

    Source: PayScale

    However, nurses with certification, advanced degrees, or extensive experience can earn considerably more than the average rehabilitation nurse salary. Many rehabilitation nurses also find the work tremendously rewarding.