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What Is Forensic Nursing?

The field of forensics has been popularized by TV shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Criminal Minds, as well as true crime documentaries. While such representations of the forensic field are both enlightening and entertaining, there’s much more to forensic science than these shows provide.

In fact, forensic expertise can be found in a number of diverse settings, including hospitals, coroners’ and medical examiners’ offices, correctional facilities, and psychiatric institutions. In some cases, forensic analysis is required in communities that have suffered a natural disaster.

You don’t need a doctorate to become involved in this emerging field. Forensic nurses play an integral role in the physical, mental and emotional components of forensics.

What Makes Nurses Uniquely Qualified for the Field of Forensics?

Often described as “blending the worlds of nursing, science and the legal system,” many of the skills required for forensic analysis are already in the nursing toolkit. Nurses routinely treat individuals who are victims of violence, which involves two key skills they already possess: compassion and advocacy.

They are also constantly collecting information on their patients — body temperature, blood pressure, weight — so it’s not much of a leap to collect the same information for evidence. Whether it’s physical evidence or picking up on nonverbal cues, nurses are highly skilled at recognizing and documenting the smallest details from their patients.

Moreover, because nurses are so adept at communication, analysis and documentation, they really are ideal candidates to fill an increasing demand in the forensics field.

Addressing the Shortage of Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE)

An area of forensics that lacks qualified professionals is sexual assault examination. Journalist Denise Lavoie recently explored the deficit in her article titled “National Shortage of Forensic Nurses Frustrates Rape Victims.” Lavoie featured the story of a woman who was forced to drive 90 miles, visiting multiple hospitals along the way, before she finally found an emergency room capable of performing a sexual assault exam.

Another woman was turned away by a Seattle hospital after she was told, “We don’t do rape kits here.” The hospital’s only offering was to transfer her to another hospital by ambulance — at her own expense. Instead, she waited until the next day and drove herself to the hospital that could perform the exam. Unfortunately, the delay in gathering evidence ultimately resulted in prosecutors deciding not to pursue criminal charges against her attacker.

The shortage of forensic nurses has multiple causes, from funding to legislative considerations. Some hospitals are reluctant to encourage their RNs to undergo additional training, as it would take them away from an already short-handed staff.

While a solution may be slow to come, the lack of forensic nurses has not gone unnoticed by educational institutions. Many degree programs, specifically those for registered nurses who are pursuing their Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree, offer upper level nursing elective courses that provide a foundation in forensic nursing.

Although the forensic nursing elective in most RN to BSN programs doesn’t result in certification within the field, it does allow RNs to explore the foundations of the subject. The course may also pique interest in the various subspecialties of forensic nursing, including:

  • Forensic nurse examiner (FNE)
  • Sexual assault nurse examiner for adults and adolescents (SANE-A)
  • Sexual assault nurse examiner for pediatric patients (SANE-P)
  • Legal nurse consultant
  • Nurse death investigator (NDI)
  • Forensic psychiatric nurse
  • Forensic nurse educator
  • Correctional nurse specialist
  • Forensic gerontology specialists

Is Forensic Nursing Right for You?

Just like any nursing sub-specialty, forensic nursing can be emotionally challenging at times. Repeated exposure to trauma victims can affect one’s professional and personal life. But for nurses who actively practice self-care and maintain a healthy balance between their career and everyday life, forensic nursing can be a very rewarding profession.

Despite being a relatively new field, forensic nursing offers opportunities for nurses to make a profound impact within their communities. Forensic nurses are also proactively contributing to improvements in the justice system. Perhaps most important, they give a voice to the patients and victims they serve.

Learn more about Arkansas State University’s online RN to BSN program.

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