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Rehabilitation Nursing: Education, Advocacy and Advanced Care

September 2013

Whether helping a patient overcome a long-term chronic illness or a short-term physical disability, rehabilitation nurses can play a very important role in setting patients on a path to an independent and healthy life. Often spending quality one-on-one time with patients and their caregivers throughout the rehabilitation process, nurses are able to coordinate care between patients and their doctors to help develop effective recovery plans.

"As a rehabilitation nurse, you get to spend a lot of time with your patients and really grow to understand their needs. If a patient is dealing with something long-term or chronic, our job is to teach them how to live with that condition and have a good quality of life. It's difficult to do that without really getting to know the patient,” said Kristen Mauk, Ph.D., DNP, RN, CRRN, GCNS-BC, GNP-BC, FAAN, Kreft Endowed Chair for the Advancement of Nursing Science at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Ind., and president-elect of the Association of Rehabilitation Nurses (ARN).

According to a study published in Advances in Nursing Science in 2010, nurses are vital to improving efficient recovery for their patients, as they are often the most consistently present healthcare professional throughout the phases of recovery. This one-on-one time creates an opportunity for rehabilitation nurses to develop relationships with their patients, helping them to truly understand their patients’ experiences and needs.

With that knowledge, nurses can then advocate for their patients when building recovery plans with the rest of the rehabilitation team, which is often made up of several members including a physical therapist, psychiatrist, primary care physician and other specialists, depending on a patient’s needs. Together, the rehabilitation team educates patients and their caregivers on how to live life with a disability and/or a debilitating chronic illness.

“In most acute care settings, the nurse's job is like giving a fish to a patient for dinner, but with rehabilitation nursing, we are truly teaching the patient how to fish," said Dr. Mauk.

In addition to the bond that they build with their patients, the importance of rehabilitation nurses also lies in their possession of a very advanced and specific set of skills that make them well-equipped to lead the rehabilitation process. One of the most important jobs of the rehabilitation nurse is to help oversee the health of his or her patients throughout the rehabilitation process, not only teaching and coaching them through recovery, but also being prepared to address health issues that arise in the meantime.

“Rehabilitation nurses work across various settings and have a variety of responsibilities,” said Dr. Mauk. “Some of us work in settings where we see patients for one or two weeks, while others work in nursing homes and often work with the same person for several years. In either case, our job is to improve that person’s quality of life through care and education.”

According to Dr. Mauk, while rehabilitation nurses most often work with patients over a longer period of time than in acute care units, their roles and objectives are similar when caring for those in the short-term. However, short-term care requires a different level of focus when it comes to patient education. In fact, it often takes a patient a prolonged period of time to even understand that his or her illness or disability may not ever be completely cured. Once that is accepted, a nurse who only sees the patient for a brief period of time has to work on a much tighter timeline to educate the patient on recovery and independence.

“While this can present obvious challenges, rehabilitation nurses are in a great position to address this by helping patients connect with community resources once they leave the hospital,” said Dr. Mauk. “That is what is so unique about the rehabilitation nursing specialty – that patient connection. It’s our job to empower our patients to live the best quality of life possible, and we do all that we can to ensure that goal is achieved.”

To become a rehabilitation nurse, an Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) or Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is required, as well as passage of the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). Nurses must then obtain certification by meeting practice requirements and passing a special certification exam through the Rehabilitation Nursing Certification Board (RNCB) before becoming a Certified Rehabilitation Registered Nurse (CRRN). Certification will then need to be renewed every five years in order to stay up-to-date on the latest practice techniques and research in rehabilitation nursing.

To learn more about rehabilitation nursing, visit

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