What is a Forensic Nurse and What Do They Do?
By Lorry Schoenly, PhD, RN
Lorry Schoenly, PhD, RN is a nurse writer and educator with over 25 years of experience. She has been certified in five different clinical specialties including critical care and emergency nursing. Starting as an associate degree registered nurse, she continued her schooling in traditional and distance-learning settings to obtain a BSN, MSN, and PhD in nursing while working full-time and raising a family. Lorry teaches nursing in a variety of settings including webinars and online nursing courses.
Forensic nursing is a new and interesting specialty for nurses to consider. These nurses have specialized training and perform forensic functions in the health care setting such as evidence collection and medicolegal death investigation. They act as liaisons between the criminal justice system and the medical profession.
What to Expect as a Forensic Nurse
Forensic nurses can work for medical examiners, essentially investigating a death or occupying the role of a deputy coroner. They may assist a forensic pathologist in gathering evidence in a questionable death. Forensic nurses also provide nursing services that assist the living. Their specialized skills in assessment, evidence preservation and collection are used in emergency rooms and in the field to treat victims of sexual abuse, child abuse and domestic or partner violence. Forensic nurses may work with law enforcement teams or as medical legal consultants as well.
One growing specialty within forensic nursing is sexual assault investigation. Victims of sexual assault need both expert care and comfort while evidence is obtained during the immediate hours after the event. Nurses are uniquely positioned for this dual role and are able to consider the forensic and psychological needs of patients who have been through traumatic events like rape. They help the patient and preserve physical evidence at the same time.
Some confuse forensic nurses with correctional nurses. While both specialties practice within the criminal justice context, forensic nurses focus on the crime, criminal or victim status of the patient, using their nursing expertise to gather evidence for the criminal case or determine cause of death. On the other hand, correctional nurses provide nursing care to the inmate populations without regard to the specific crimes or criminal status of the patient.
How to Get Started in Forensic Nursing
Forensic nurses often join the specialty from more traditional nursing roles, especially emergency nursing. Positions usually require training or certification in evidence collection and medicolegal issues. In addition, some graduate nursing programs have been developed to train nurses specifically for forensic positions.