What Nurse Researchers Do — And Why It’s Important

Nurse researchers are Ph.D.-educated professionals who perform the research that advances nursing practice and establishes new evidence-based guidelines for nursing care.
Registered nurses often have their own opinions and gut feelings about how to better care for patients and improve patient outcomes, but nurse researchers use the techniques of scientific inquiry to put those theories to the test and find the evidence necessary to sway policymakers. Nursing research is vital to advancing the entire nursing profession.
As scientists, nursing researchers often work for academic institutions or research hospitals. They design and implement scientific studies, write grant proposals, and publish their findings in professional publications. They may also review the work of other nurse researchers. In addition, many nurse researchers may teach at the university level.

What to Expect in a Nursing Research Career

If you’re interested in becoming a nurse researcher, you’ll need to achieve the highest level of education a nurse can aspire to — a doctorate. Nurse researchers typically earn Ph.D.s, because these degree programs focus on teaching doctoral candidates how to perform scientifically sound research. Ph.D. programs differ in that way from DNP programs, which prepare nurses for a practice-focused career, or EdD programs, which prepare nurses for a teaching-focused career. Many nurse researchers start out as RNs and then make the choice to go back to school for their Ph.D. in Nursing after realizing a need to directly influence health care policy. Nurse researchers often begin their careers as research assistants, clinical research monitors, or clinical data coordinators before working their way up to the most senior role, that of principal investigator. The principal investigator is responsible for the outcome of the entire research project. Some of the things nurse researchers investigate include:

  • Better ways to help patients make healthier lifestyle choices
  • How to improve quality of life for patients coping with chronic conditions
  • How to better comfort and care for patients nearing the end of life
  • Ways to deliver health care more efficiently and effectively
  • Ways to improve patient safety and outcomes

Nurse researchers are considered experts in the nursing field and many of them are able to influence health care policy on the national level. They may work with scientists in other fields, like medicine, pharmacology, or nutrition, to address more complicated patient-care problems.

Why Nursing Research Is Important

Nursing research is the primary tool by which nurses can improve patient care and advance the field as a whole. While floor nurses may learn through experience what practices are best for patient outcomes, administrators and policymakers won’t listen unless nurses can provide scientific evidence that supports these practices. That’s where nursing research comes in.
According to one study published in the journal AACN Clinical Issues, practices based on the findings of nursing research are more likely to lead to favorable patient outcomes. Research that improves nursing care can help keep health care costs down, make information about best nursing practices more available to a wider range of nursing practitioners, and help health care consumers become more knowledgeable about their treatment options.
Nursing research provides opportunities for nursing care to become more efficient and streamlined, and for nurses to better tailor care to the unique needs of each individual patient, even when pressed for time and resources. Nurses who implement evidence-based practices are better able to keep up with technological advances in the field of health care, and implement new advancements in the field of medical and nursing knowledge.
Without dedicated nurse researchers, many people are alive today who might not otherwise be. For example, thanks to the tireless efforts of nurse researcher Linda Aiken, hospitals now know that encouraging more registered nurses to earn their BSNs leads to lower mortality rates in surgical patients. Thanks to Dr. Aiken’s research, many hospitals around the country are now requiring registered nurses to obtain their BSNs, if they haven’t already, within 10 years of being hired.
Nurse researchers dedicate their professional lives to scientific inquiry in the field of nursing. Their findings provide the evidence that convinces policy makers to implement new nursing guidelines that improve patient care and outcomes and can even save lives. Without nurse researchers, the field of nursing would remain mired in the past, unable to keep up with advancements in health care technology and general medical knowledge.