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What Is Medical-Surgical Nursing?

Ann Feeney, CAE
Updated May 8, 2023
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Medical-surgical nurses often care for adults in hospital settings. Learn what medical-surgical nursing is and if it's right for you in this guide.
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Medical-surgical nursing is the most common specialty for registered nurses (RNs). It’s also one of the most popular entry-level areas for new nurses. Medical-surgical nurses provide direct care for adult patients who are preparing for surgery or recovering from a procedure. These nurses also educate patients. Explore this nursing specialty to see if it is the right fit for you.

What is Medical-Surgical Nursing?

Medical-surgical nursing typically takes place in an inpatient hospital setting. They play a vital role in patient safety, comfort, and overall outcomes. Medical-surgical nurses, also called med/surg nurses, help prepare patients for surgery. They educate patients through telehealth or phone calls, asking questions about their medical history and setting expectations about surgery and recovery.

They work as part of a team with surgeons, anesthesiologists, physicians, and other clinicians. In a specialty or outpatient setting, such as a dermatology department or practice, medical-surgical nurses typically work regular office hours, but in in-patient surgery, they may work any shift.

nurse holding patient's hand

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Key Responsibilities

  • Monitoring patients by checking blood pressure and oxygen saturation level
  • Dressing surgical sites and changing dressings where appropriate
  • Updating patients’ medical records
  • Following up with patients and answering questions during recovery

Career Traits

  • Strong teamwork and collaboration skills
  • Good at communicating with patients and making sure that they understand pre-surgery and discharge instructions
  • Attention to detail and subtle indicators
  • Compassion and cultural sensitivity

Medical-Surgical Nursing Eligibility

Medical-surgical nurses need a nursing license. There are two main pathways to a nursing license: a two-year associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a four-year bachelor of science in nursing (BSN). After you earn your nursing degree, you must take the national standardized NCLEX-RN examination.

Many nurses start their careers in medical-surgical to gain experience that can apply to almost any other nursing specialty. Med/surg nurses can expect extensive on-the-job training from experienced nurses and nurse educators. Once you have experience in medical-surgical nursing, you can apply for certification. Both the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) and the Academy of Medical-Surgical Nurses (AMSN) offer medical-surgical nursing certification.

ANCC certification requires at least two years of experience as an RN, at least 2,000 hours of medical-surgical nursing experience, and at least 30 hours of continuing education in medical-surgical nursing within the last three years. For AMSN certification, you must have two years of medical-surgical nursing experience and at least 2,000 hours as a medical-surgical nurse within the last three years.

Where Do Medical-Surgical Nurses Work?

Medical-surgical nursing typically involves caring for patients in a medical or surgical inpatient unit of a hospital. Medical-surgical nursing is characterized by caring for a patient before or after surgery, during recovery, or during an acute illness. These nurses may also check to see if a surgical wound is healing properly and answer any patient questions about what to expect during recovery.

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Pros and Cons of Medical-Surgical Nursing

The pros and cons of any job depend on each person’s personality, lifestyle, and goals. For example, some nurses thrive in a fast-paced ER setting, while others may find the stress unsustainable. Other nurses find deep meaning in treating terminal patients, which other nurses might find very distressing. Be sure to consider these pros and cons of medical-surgical nursing from your own perspective.


  • check-circleMost patients recover without complications.
  • check-circleAbility to care for a wide variety of patients and conditions.
  • check-circleOpportunity for new nurses to learn their likes and dislikes and what specialties might interest them.
  • check-circleOften involves supervising nursing assistants, providing an opportunity to lead and mentor


  • x-circleGenerally high patient-to-nurse staffing ratios with high acuity
  • x-circleLess ability to develop relationships and personal knowledge of patients
  • x-circleWorkloads are unpredictable, especially for inpatient non-elective surgery.
  • x-circleShifts can be long and physically exhausting.

Salaries in Medical-Surgical Nursing

In addition to local cost of living and demand, experience, certification, and responsibilities all affect medical-surgical nursing salaries. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the average medical-surgical nursing salary is $90,600, and the average hourly wage is $43.56.

Traveling medical-surgical nursing often pays higher salaries but may have higher expenses, along with the stress of adjusting to a new workplace and being away from home. The BLS projects that RN jobs will grow 6% between 2021 and 2031, which is about average. However, demand may be considerably higher in certain parts of the country, especially those with a higher proportion of older adults and in rural areas.

Frequently Asked Questions about Medical-Surgical Nursing

What do Medical-Surgical nurses do?

Medical-surgical nurses provide care for patients before and after surgical procedures. They educate patients on what to expect and how to prepare for pre and post-surgery. Med/surg nurses also treat incisions, administer medications, monitor patients’ vital signs and condition, and educate patients on how to continue their care at home.

Is Medical-Surgical nursing hard?

Medical-surgical nursing requires attention to detail, teamwork, and excellent communication skills to care for patients with high acuity. They may assist patients with moving, dressing, washing, eating and drinking, or toileting. Long shifts can be physically and emotionally draining. Because these nurses treat a variety of patients and conditions, keeping up with current nursing practice can be demanding.

Is Med-Surg the same as ER?

Medical-surgical nursing differs from ER nursing in several ways. Medical-surgical nursing primarily takes place in a hospital setting and typically involves routine and elective surgery rather than emergency surgery. However, med/surg nurses may treat patients after they are released from the ER or ICU.

What skills do Medical-Surgical nurses need?

Medical-surgical nurses often dress incisions and monitor them for signs of complications or infections. They must have broad general knowledge of nursing because their patients are receiving treatment for a variety of conditions. Because these nurses often have high patient-to-nurse ratios, they must maintain their focus while switching between multiple tasks.

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Page last reviewed on March 21, 2023

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