Investigative Medicine: What Is Forensic Nursing?

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A forensic nurse looks through a microscope.

Forensic nurses are on the front line of helping people affected by physical trauma and violent crimes. They provide physical and psychological care to help victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse, elder mistreatment, human trafficking, and other crimes. Their work can extend beyond clinical settings to the legal system, where they provide testimony on behalf of their patients.

What is forensic nursing? It is a fast-paced career involving various activities, including working directly with patients; building evidence for legal cases; and interacting with law enforcement, attorneys, and social service agencies. But most importantly, it is a role that can help improve the lives of the most vulnerable people in society.

Nursing professionals seeking to transition to forensic nursing roles can benefit from an online Master of Science in Nursing degree to enhance their knowledge of prevailing medical practices and acquire critical-thinking skills, which are essential for today’s nurse practitioner and leadership roles.

What Does a Forensic Nurse Do?

Forensic nurses work in hospitals and other clinical settings. They collect biological samples, conduct physical exams, and document and photograph evidence that indicates assault or other physical harm to their patients. They are often called into courtrooms to provide testimony about their findings. As such, forensic nurses often interact with lawyers and are familiar with the legal system. Forensic nurses also walk their patients through the next steps of health recovery, providing informational resources and connecting them with social services and victim assistance programs.

Forensic nursing is a demanding role that can take an emotional toll on nurses. Nurses interested in pursuing a career as a forensic nurse must demonstrate the ability to deal with challenging issues, such as rape and abuse. As is expected from all types of nursing roles, a forensic nurse must know how to deal with death-related issues and show compassion to help patients’ grieving families and friends.

Steps for Becoming a Forensic Nurse

The foundation of the forensic nursing profession is knowledge of nursing practice, which is why experience in clinical settings is essential to the role. Students researching forensic nursing career information and considering applying their advanced nursing degree to the field of forensic nursing should find the following steps useful.

Develop Essential Skills

The role requires the ability to combine nursing knowledge with research, investigation, data collection, and advocacy skills. Typically, forensic nurses are knowledgeable in areas of psychology and understand what influences certain behaviors in patients. Firsthand experience of legal procedures enables them to understand what is involved in preparing for and giving testimony in courtrooms and other legal settings.

Common personality traits for forensic nurses include trustworthiness, honesty, integrity, and an ethical approach in their interactions. As indicated earlier, forensic nurses often find themselves in legal settings and need to share evidence and provide expert testimony. As such, forensic nurses must have the advanced detail-oriented, organizational, and analytical competencies needed to demonstrate that their findings are evidence-based and credible.

Earn an Advanced Degree or Certification

A forensic nurse is a registered nurse (RN) with an educational foundation in nursing , often obtained from an accredited bachelor’s in nursing degree program. An RN interested in a forensic nursing career can enroll in a master’s degree program, which includes coursework that prepares them for forensic nursing certification. An advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) has already obtained a graduate degree from an accredited school and may also have an additional certificate in forensic nursing.

The educational, licensing, and certification requirements typically associated with the role vary depending on the specialty area. For example, many RNs enter the field by completing the requirements of the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) certification, which is offered by the International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN). The minimum requirements to take the certification include 40 hours of learning in classroom settings and 40 hours of clinical experience. Nurses who want to specialize in working with adults and adolescents can pursue the SANE-A certification. For those who prefer working in pediatrics, IAFN offers the SANE-P certification.

Regis College’s online Master of Science in Nursing program imparts graduates with the critical-thinking and interpersonal skills essential for competent, compassionate nursing practice. From day one, the faculty focuses on providing a holistic view of health care to students. The program prepares students to offer confident, respectful patient care in health care and legal settings and to help deliver positive outcomes. Education plus experience in the role of forensic nursing can help drive a nurse’s career trajectory, while impacting the lives of patient populations affected by violence, abuse, and neglect.

Choose a Specialty Area

Forensic nurses can choose to specialize in providing care to children, women, the elderly, families, or people in need of mental health services. Regis’s online MSN degree enables students to select from one of the following nursing specializations to help get started on career paths in forensic nursing:

  • Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner (WHNP). This specialization prepares nurses to treat women’s health needs across their life cycle. Nurses gain an in-depth understanding of complex issues that occur more commonly in women.
  • Pediatric Nurse Practitioner (PNP). This specialization prepares nurses to diagnose, treat, and prevent illnesses in children from physical injuries to special needs.
  • Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP). This specialization prepares nurses to focus on providing holistic care, including counseling and health education, family care, and newborn and senior care.
  • Adult-Geriatric Nurse Practitioner (AGNP). This specialization focuses on helping elderly patients, considered among the most vulnerable and many of whom suffer from chronic illness.
  • Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP). This specialization arms nurses with the competencies to address not only the physical scars of patients but also their mental health issues.

Salaries of a Forensic Nurse

What is forensic nursing’s salary range? The salaries for forensic nurses may vary by education level, geography, and type of industry. A forensic nurse can be an RN with a certificate in forensic nursing or an APRN with a certificate in forensic nursing. A comparison of the median salary of an RN with that of an APRN reveals that pursuing a graduate degree may result in higher pay.

In 2018, the median annual salary for RNs was $71,730, while the median annual salary for APRNs was $113,930, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

The salaries for RN and APRN roles can be further broken down by region. For example, the following states have the highest published employment and wages:

  • New York: RN $85,610 / APRN $120,970
  • California: RN $106,950 / APRN $133,780
  • Texas: RN $72,890 / APRN $111,060
  • Florida: RN $66,210 / APRN $101,100

The salaries for RN and APRN roles also vary by work settings. For example, the following settings have the highest published employment and wages:

  • Hospitals — state, local, and private: RN $73,650 / APRN $120,540
  • Educational services — state, local, and private: RN $61,850 / APRN $104,310

A master’s degree from an accredited program is a requirement for APRN roles, according to the BLS. RNs interested in forensic nursing will have to determine if an advanced degree can help them meet their career goals. Accredited graduate nursing programs include classroom education and clinical experience, both of which can help prepare students to qualify for SANE certification.

Future Growth of a Forensic Nurse

Preventive care trends in health care and increasing demand for health care services for aging populations are igniting job growth of APRN roles, which the BLS projects to be 26% between 2018 and 2028. Explore how Regis College’s online Master of Science in Nursing program can help you prepare for the specialized role of forensic nursing.

Recommended Readings

What Are Some of the Best MSN Careers in the Nursing Field?
Future of Nursing: Trends in a Demanding Industry
The MSN Degree Definition


Cleveland Clinic, Caring for Victims of Violence: Forensic Nurses Are on the Front Line
Houston Chronicle, The Roles & Responsibilities of Forensic Nurses
International Association of Forensic Nurses, Become a Forensic Nurse
International Association of Forensic Nurses, What Is Forensic Nursing?
Lippincott, “Serving as a Witness in the Court: Trials, Testimony, and Truth”
National Sexual Violence Resource Center, “Every Question You’ve Ever Wanted to Ask a Forensic Nurse”
Regis College, Online Master of Science in Nursing
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Practitioners
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered Nurses