On the move: What is an ambulatory care nurse?

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By Rose Kennedy

Many are viewing nursing careers in a new light after seeing the dedication and skill from nurse role models during the pandemic. Some mid-career nurses are also seeking new opportunities after the chaos and crushing stress of COVID-19. If you’re a member of either the aspiring newbie or job-changer nurse groups, consider learning more about the ambulatory nurse path.

According to RegisteredNursing.org, “Ambulatory care is a great specialty for licensed RNs of any background, since the type of care provided can be so broad. It’s also ideal for those coming out of nursing school who don’t want to work odd hours or be in a stressful hospital environment.”

Here’s more about the ambulatory nurse career path:

What do ambulatory nurses do?

This ever-expanding nursing niche typically involves helping patients who require routine medical care for acute and chronic illnesses. The work is defined more by the setting than specific duties. Essentially, the job title covers nurses who work in non-acute surgical and diagnostic outpatient facilities — and does not apply to those who do their jobs at hospitals and other traditional inpatient settings.

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Beneath the “outpatient” umbrella, though, the job sites and responsibilities are far-ranging and diverse. Just a few of the places these nurses work include primary care, military clinics, managed-care facilities, ambulatory centers, community health hubs, infusion or dialysis centers, urgent care and telehealth.

As for the duties, in a nutshell, as per RegisteredNursing.org, “Ambulatory care nurses see a variety of patients for things like routine care, injuries, chronic or acute illness, and more, and may specialize in things like pediatrics or other niche areas. These nurses must have astute, multidisciplinary clinical knowledge to be able to assess and expedite appropriate care.”

Quarantining and the need to contain health care costs have spurred telehealth options, leading to an increase in ambulatory care nurses practicing via “telehealth encounters that occur across distances in the virtual environment,” according to the American Academy of Ambulatory Care Nursing.

Are ambulatory nurses in demand?

If you want to pursue this specialty, you can be confident in a steady stream of job possibilities, even more than just the ordinary accelerated RN job growth.

According to NurseJournal, part of the increased demand comes from an altered patient pool, different than it was even 10 years ago. “Patients today often are sicker and have more chronic diseases,” it said. “Still, stays in the hospital are shorter, and complex medical procedures often are done on an outpatient basis. So the need for ambulatory nursing care is on the upswing.”

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The Bureau of Labor Statistics is also predicting increased job demand for registered nurses in general, and those who work in outpatient settings in particular. The BLS projected employment of registered nurses to grow 7% from 2019 to 2029, faster than the average for all occupations.

In outlining the reasons for this growth, the BLS continually referenced ambulatory care nurses. “The financial pressure on hospitals to discharge patients as soon as possible may result in more people being admitted to long-term care facilities and outpatient care centers and in greater need for healthcare at home,” it said. “Job growth is expected in facilities that provide long-term rehabilitation for stroke and head injury patients and in facilities that treat people with Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, because many older people prefer to be treated at home or in residential care facilities, registered nurses will be in demand in those settings.”

The government labor trend prognosticator also predicted nursing job growth to be “faster than average in outpatient care centers, where patients do not stay overnight, such as those that provide same-day chemotherapy, rehabilitation, and surgery. In addition, a large number of procedures, including sophisticated procedures previously done only in hospitals, are now done in ambulatory care settings and physicians’ offices.”

How much money do these nurses make?

Because the job descriptions and levels of education for nurses on this career path vary a great deal, it’s hard to determine a meaningful salary range for those aspiring to the specialty.

But to give you a very general idea, the national average salary for an ambulatory RN is $65,870 in the United States, according to Glassdoor, while the average base pay for a licensed practical registered nurse at an urgent care is $41,917.

What education is required?

Most of the jobs in acute care can be filled by licensed practical nurses or registered nurses, though nurse practitioners frequently work in outpatient settings as well.

According to RegisteredNursing.org, “Ambulatory care nurses are licensed RNs who have earned an ADN or BSN degree. Depending on where they are employed, or if they have a special focus, an ambulatory care nurse may need to hold at least a BSN or higher. Ambulatory nursing is a great starting point for new nurse grads to gain experience and decide if they want to specialize in anything; it’s also ideal for those who know they want to work regular day-time hours.”

After earning a degree and passing the NCLEX-RN, nurses are eligible to be hired in ambulatory care. “With a few years of experience, they can go on to become certified in the specialty,” RN added.

To be eligible to sit for the Ambulatory Care Nurse Certification Exam, RNs must have an active license and at least two years of full-time RN experience, 2,000 hours of clinical practice and 30 hours of continuing education in ambulatory care within the previous three years.

What traits or experience would give you an edge?

Even with plenty of jobs, it’s easier to get hired and also to excel at being an ambulatory care nurse if you’re comfortable with constant one-on-one interaction and able to advocate for others.

According to the AAACN, “Ambulatory care RNs interact with patients during face-to-face encounters or through a variety of telecommunication strategies in the virtual environment, often establishing long-term relationships.”

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It helps to be proficient with telecommunications or willing to learn, too. “Telehealth nursing is an integral component of professional ambulatory care nursing that utilizes a variety of telecommunications technologies during encounters to assess, triage, provide nursing consultation, perform follow up and care coordination,” the AAACN added.

And this specialty is also calling all nurses who are willing to blaze trails and set standards. As health care shifts away from a predominantly hospital setting, NurseJournal added, “RNs need to go with it. There will be many new opportunities for nurses in places that did not even exist five years ago and outpatient facilities will make up many of them.”

“Ambulatory care nurses are highly skilled in the assessment of patients, are able to work in diverse settings, and can implement all kinds of nursing interventions,” according to NursingJournal. “To be a good ambulatory care nurse in this new age of health care, you will need strong clinical and advocacy skills to deal with the diverse settings in which you will work. If you have these skills, and you want to have a high number of opportunities for growth in nursing, you should definitely consider this growing field.”