For those who are drawn to helping and caring for others, a career in the medical field can be ideal. There are many different paths one can take to realize their potential for providing excellent healthcare to those in need. Two of the most popular options are becoming a registered nurse (RN) or becoming a paramedic. And while the two roles share similarities, there are some significant differences that you may want to know about before you pursue one or the other as a career.
Overall, both are fast-paced jobs that often need a person to be on the front lines of emergency care, offering a emergency medical service or EMS as the first step in a patient’s care protocol. They may also treat life-threatening issues that require EMS and immediate care, which means they need grace under pressure and exceptional stress management skills. But from there, the roles of a registered nurse and a paramedic start to differ.
Paramedics tend to do their work in an ambulance, and then hand patients off to an EMS RN once they reach a hospital or similar emergency medical clinic. Paramedics may need to be able to drive an ambulance and perform EMS while moving quickly in the vehicle. After they get to the hospital, a nurse takes over, using information provided from the paramedic to continue a patient’s care. And while paramedics are trained to work in a field setting with minimal supplies in high-pressure situations, registered nurses manage a patient’s follow-up care in a more traditional medical setting.
But there’s more to it than that. Below, we’ve broken down the differences between RNs and paramedics so you can choose the career path that’s right for you.
A paramedic is an emergency medical professional who is typically one of the first responders on the scene of a critical, emergency, or life-threatening incident. They are the first part of a patient’s emergency care, employing strong assessment skills and quick thinking to determine the best course of action for a patient at the scene of an incident and while they’re en route to the hospital. They have a deep knowledge of anatomy and physiology and work fast with limited supplies so they can stabilize patients to the best of their abilities before those patients receive more comprehensive care at a hospital.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), paramedics make an average annual salary of $36,650 per year, and the field is projected to grow 6% between now and 2029. To become a paramedic, you’ll need to complete your high school degree (or get a GED) and get a CPR certification, then enroll in an EMT program. Once you take your EMT certification exam, you’ll need to work with an emergency response team for about six months before you can enter a paramedic program.
These programs can take two years, and while usually they’re associate programs, some may lead to a bachelor’s degree. You’ll learn subjects such as anatomy, physiology and pharmacology. When you’re done, you’ll need to get certified. The educational and certification needs may vary from state to state, so check with your state regulations to make sure you’re enrolling in the necessary education programs.
There’s more than one type of paramedic, which means you have the option to specialize once you complete your education and training. The different types of paramedics are:
- EMT Paramedic: These paramedics are the ones you likely think of when you think of paramedics. They tend to work with rapid-response units to handle emergency situations, urgent care needs, and 911 calls. Their focus is on treating victims according to their trauma, ensuring the patient can be transported safely to a hospital or emergency care facility. Once they arrive at the care facility, the EMT helps with patient hand-off by detailing their care to the medical staff.
- Flight Paramedic: Ready to administer patient care high in the sky? That’s what a flight paramedic does, working with a flight crew to find victims in remote locations—like in the mountains, out in the desert, etc.—and provide them with medical care as the patient is being transported to the hospital. They may be accompanied by a flight nurse, and the two collaborate on the patient’s care. In addition to medical knowledge, flight paramedics are expected to know air safety and help the pilot as needed.
- Firefighter Paramedic: While firefighters are putting out fires and rescuing people in danger, firefighter paramedics work right alongside them employing both the skills of a firefighter and the skills of a paramedic. Like other paramedics, firefighter paramedics treat patients on location and in transport. They may require additional education or certification over and above what’s generally expected of firefighters and paramedics, so it’s best to check with your state on specifics.
Paramedics have a lot they need to manage both on-site and in transport to a local hospital or emergency care facility. A paramedic’s duties include:
- Responding to 911 emergency calls
- Assessing a patient’s condition and determining a course of treatment
- Providing basic care on-site and en route to the hospital
- Administering oral or intravenous medications
- Interpreting EKGs and working with other complex medical equipment
- Using backboards and restraints to ensure safe transport of patients
- Transferring patients to the emergency department
- Creating patient care reports detailing the treatment they’ve administered
- Reporting status, findings and treatments to hospital medical staff
- Replacing supplies as needed
Though the duties of a registered nurse may change from day to day, there is one constant: providing excellent patient care. Registered nurses work alongside other medical staff, such as physicians or surgeons, to care for patients in a variety of medical settings, including private practices and hospitals. Some work in other non-traditional medical settings such as a nursing home or medical spa. Whether their focus is on providing preventative care, urgent care, or emergency care, a registered nurse acts as a patient caretaker, managing their assessments, activities, and medications, as well as scheduling necessary procedures and updating associated medical staff on the patient’s progression. They may also create patient care plans.
According to the BLS, the average annual salary of a registered nurse is $75,330 per year, with a projected field growth of 7% between now and 2029. To become a registered nurse, you’ll need to get your nursing education, such as a bachelor’s degree in nursing or an ADN. Then, you’ll need to take the NCLEX exam. From there, you can earn your board certification. Each state’s requirements are different, so make sure you check with yours to determine what kind of education and certification you need.
To advance your nursing career, it’s recommended that you explore a master’s degree program such as a MSN in Nursing Education or a Master’s of Nursing Informatics. With a master’s degree, you can step into more senior roles that may put you in an administrative capacity or see you leading a department and managing your own team of nurses.
There are countless types of registered nurses and nursing specialties, so it’s likely you’ll find a role that will suit your aptitude. Some of the nursing roles available to you include:
- Cardiac Nurse: With heart disease on the rise, the demand for cardiac nurses is high. In addition to the typical duties associated with a registered nurse, cardiac nurses are expected to assist with surgical procedures related to the heart, such as pacemaker or bypass surgery.
- Flight Nurse: Flight nurses take the responsibilities of an RN to new heights—literally. They are the ones on board the jet or helicopter, taking care of patients as they fly. Flight nurses are responsible for checking vitals, keeping records, administering medication, performing medical procedures, and more.
- Geriatric Nurse: On the other end of the spectrum, working as a geriatric nurse gives you the opportunity to provide specialized care to seniors in need. Not only will you help them with injuries, ailments, and illnesses (some of which are long-term), you’ll also assist with improving and maintaining their quality of life.
- Surgical Nurse: Surgical nurses are also known as perioperative nurses, and work in the OR and with surgery patients before, during, and after their surgery. There are many specific things that a perioperative trained registered nurse will do to help surgeons and nurse practitioners during surgery. They usually work directly with a doctor on specific surgery patients to ensure everything goes smoothly.
- Nurse Manager: This is more of a supervisory role, with a focus on administrative duties such as creating schedules and managing budgets. You’ll also be in charge of recruiting nurses and managing the team that you’ve built.
- Trauma Nurse: Trauma certified registered nurses (TCRNs) are at the forefront of dealing with critical or life-threatening injuries. They are the ones that work as first responders in emergency departments, often in tandem with emergency transport teams, to help save lives and care for victims. They work directly with ER physicians, trauma surgeons, and more.
- ER Nurse: No two days are the same when you’re an ER nurse. In this role, you’ll be working alongside an emergency care team to handle critical medical situations such as injuries or illness. It’s high-pressure, so not for the faint of heart. But you’ll be a big help by reviewing patient medical charts, administering care and medication, and supporting senior medical staff—sometimes in life-or-death scenarios.
Your duties as an RN will depend on your area of specialty, but some tasks are uniform across the board no matter which kind of nurse you are. Your day-to-day is likely to include:
- Monitoring and recording patient vital signs and progress
- Drawing blood, collecting lab work, and offering wound care
- Creating care plans and helping patients follow those plans
- Administering medications as needed
- Providing treatment as necessary
- Assisting senior medical staff with procedures
- Administering and monitoring IV drips and associated medications
- Offering medical education to patients
- Answering patient and family questions about medical care
While the roles of an RN and a paramedic can differ greatly, there’s a way to bridge the gap between these two careers based on their similarities. Even if you’re dead set on being mobile, advancing your career to become an RN is just one way you can connect the duties of a paramedic with the duties of an RN more seamlessly. Regardless of which path you choose, the job is incredibly demanding—especially when you’re interested in advancing your career. The best way to meet these demands without sacrificing your passion for education is to find a flexible option for your degree program. From there, the sky’s the limit!