What is a Forensic Nurse?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

A forensic nurse is first a trained nurse, with typically an R.N. degree, who has chosen to take additional training either post graduate certificate, or masters or doctorate level work in forensics. These extra studies train the nurse to not only deliver healthcare, but also to investigate the potential of someone having been injured through criminal behavior or by lack of appropriate care that could constitute hazardous circumstances or criminal negligence. There are a number of fields in which the forensic nurse may work and many areas in which these specialists find employment.

A forensic nurse may specialize in correctional nursing.
A forensic nurse may specialize in correctional nursing.

It’s important to note that not all forensic nurses perform the same types of work or work in the same kinds of facilities. Some truly do examine the dead, as employees in coroner’s offices. They might do so in conjunction with police or with agencies that are searching for bodies after a disaster takes place. It’s often thought that forensics is merely the investigation of those who have died, but this is not the case, and a forensic nurse does not have to work in this capacity.

Some forensic nurses may work in hospitals or clinics where they treat patients, especially those that come into emergency rooms. Their goal is twofold: they need to deliver healthcare, but they also need to make certain that injuries didn’t arise from criminal circumstances. The types of people a forensic nurse might treat include gun shot victims, those suspected of having been abused, victims of rape, and others.

Some nurses are only forensic nurses inasmuch as they are trained to collect evidence from rape victims. These may be called sexual assault nurse examiners. One of the difficulties in giving care to an injured person who has been the victim of crime is there are dual necessities. The injured person needs physical care, but evidence must be collected and preserved too or else it may be impossible to prove a crime took place. That’s the balance that sexual assault nurse examiners must find, and any forensic nurse must strive for when performing her/his job.

Other types of work these nurses specialize in can include correctional nursing, mental health nursing (especially for those with dangerous mental health conditions), or elder care nursing. In these cases, the nurse may be employed to oversee the quality of care. Forensic nurses may also work out of independent or government agencies to investigate things like allegations of systemic abuse in long term care facilities. Another avenue is to work as a consultant in legal settings interpreting medical information for lawyers, or to work giving expert testimony in court about medical matters.

There are a number of schools that offer training in forensic nursing. After training, it’s advised that people seek certification through the International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFA). Some jobs may require certification, especially jobs where nurses must collect evidence of a crime, such as sexual assault nurse examiners do. Nurses should check certification requirements with the state nursing board in which they work, or with the school where they train in forensic nursing.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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