5 Skills Needed to Be a Nurse

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under MSN

Nurse wearing a lab coat and smiling outside.

Projections by the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC) indicate a shortage of up to 139,000 primary care doctors and specialists in the U.S. by 2033. Different factors are driving these trends, including an increased number of older patients and retiring doctors.

As the largest profession in the U.S. health care industry, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AANC), nursing can make an impact in addressing this challenge. In the context of patient care, the skills needed to be a nurse are critical for helping improve the lives of millions of patients, as well as families and communities through effective, compassionate delivery of care, education and one-on-one guidance.

Specifically, nurse practitioners have the clinical knowledge and leadership skills to identify patient needs and work to ensure those needs are met. This is because nurse practitioners can perform many of the same activities as physicians, such as prescribing medications in states with full practice authority, as well as running their own primary care medical practice.

Skills needed to be a nurse are important in various health care settings, from acute care to emergency rooms. Despite the field’s diverse nature, all nursing specialties are bound by leadership, communication, problem-solving, analytical and teamwork skills. Current and aspiring nurses need to understand that these skills are fundamental to meeting the challenges in the health care industry and providing the highest levels of patient care. A graduate degree program, such as a Master of Science in Nursing (M.S.N.), can help nurses develop the core competencies to succeed as a nurse.

The Five Essential Skills for Nurses

Students learn many skills in their nursing programs, with a particular focus on building clinical competencies. But to achieve success, a nurse’s skill set must go beyond the clinical. Breaking down core competencies nurses need for success and why they are so critical in today’s health care industry is important for nurses looking to expand their careers and pursue increasing responsibility.

1. Leadership Skills

Nurses looking to take on higher-level roles need to develop effective leadership skills. Leaders can influence both individuals and groups, helping guide them toward achieving goals. In health care settings, goals can include improving internal processes or driving toward elevating patient satisfaction levels.

Leadership includes a subset of competencies, such as decision-making, organization and conflict resolution. Nurses can set the tone for success in a nursing organization with these core leadership skills. For example, nurse leaders can set policies to help young nurses thrive, improve productivity throughout a facility and resolve issues that lead to better outcomes.

2. Communication Skills

Communication is critical in nursing environments. Lack of communication can lead to errors in administering medications and procedures such as inserting IVs. Effective communication can help keep nurses informed about patients to help ensure smooth transitions during handoffs.

Communication is also vital to collaboration and cooperation among nurse teams and physicians. Communication skills enable nurses to communicate instructions to patients about their at-home medications. Another essential component of communication is listening. If they’re not good listeners, nurses will have difficulty understanding patients’ worries and requests.

3. Problem-Solving Skills

Every day, nurses encounter problems that need resolution. For example, they regularly face tough decisions, from optimizing personal protective equipment resources to determining which patients receive treatment first. Problems come in different forms. For example, nurses plan and implement care regimens for their patients, but even the best thorough plans can go awry due to different patient reactions to a plan.

In another example, nurses commonly perform duties on behalf of other nurses. This is foundational for effective team collaboration, but problems may arise in terms of effective workload management, potentially causing burnout and stress.

4. Analytical Skills

Analysis is a skill needed to be a nurse that requires intellect, creativity and critical thinking. Analytical skills involve the ability to look at a situation and gather as much information as possible to make decisions that can impact patients and fellow nurses.

For example, the ability to detect a patient’s status is critical in nursing. By using analytical skills, nurses can recognize shifts in a patient’s comfort level and then determine what adjustments are needed in the care plan to help their conditions improve. Outside of the clinical arena, analytical skills allow nurses to see flaws in a process and find new ways to improve them, making the lives of patients and nurses better.

5. Teamwork Skills

Working collaboratively enables nurse teams to deliver care effectively. Through teamwork, nurses can enhance patient safety, improve clinical performance and reduce medical errors.

With complex illnesses that require specialized, well-organized, comprehensive care, a collaborative approach that involves working with many different nurses, nurse teams and physicians is essential for treating patients and delivering positive patient outcomes. Teamwork can also help reduce nurse burnout because individuals understand the importance of supporting each other in high-intensity, stressful situations.

Skills for Nursing Specializations

The skills needed to be a nurse can depend on the specific role, such as family nurse practitioner (FNP) or psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP). For example, FNPs typically work with patients at different stages in their lives. This means they need to develop diagnostic skills for assessing patients of all ages. PMHNPs are required to understand how to perform psychiatric and psychopharmacological evaluations to properly treat their patients.

Regardless of specialization or practice focus, all nurses need to have personal qualities that enable them to work with patients effectively and help optimize health outcomes. These include empathy, adaptability and self-confidence. However, nurses will apply these common traits differently within each specialization.

Skills for the Future of Nursing

In 2020, more than 3 million individuals worked as registered nurses, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The future of employment in nursing looks promising as well, with BLS projecting 9% growth for registered nurses (RNs) and 52% growth for nurse practitioners (NPs) from 2020 to 2030. Prospective nurses should hold some essential competencies for future success in nursing. These include:

Technology Skills

With the increased use of technology such as automated IV pumps, portable monitors and electronic health records, nurses need to cultivate their technology skills more than ever. Additionally, with a growing emphasis on technology in nursing, nurses need to stay abreast of tech-driven concepts such as telehealth, smart medical devices and health monitoring, which are becoming more prominently used in care delivery.

Cultural Competence

As patient populations become more diverse, the nursing workforce of the future will be expected to diversify as well. As such, there will be an increased need for cultural awareness in nursing to help address the needs of people with varied backgrounds.

Ability to Recognize Burnout

Pandemic disruptions and burnout have caused many nurses to leave the profession, which is projected to create a shortage of up to 13 million nurses by 2030, according to the International Council of Nurses. The pressure of nursing also led many to experience compassion fatigue, which describes the loss of empathy for patients or fellow nurses. To help reduce the negative impacts of burnout, nurse leaders will need to recognize the signs of compassion fatigue in their staff.

Take the First Step to Advancing Your Skills

By acquiring the skills needed to be a nurse, individuals interested in a nursing career can make a significant difference in patient care and the health care industry. Nurses have a broad range of practice options and specializations, each with different skills to apply.

Regardless of where nurses are in their careers, they can advance their education to expand their knowledge and skills through a graduate nursing program such as the University of North Dakota’s online Master of Science in Nursing. Our program offers two concentrations — Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner and Family Nurse Practitioner — for nurses to find the best career fit for their interests. Explore the curriculum and build up the essential skills for success in nursing.

Recommended Readings

How Long Does It Take to Get a Master’s in Nursing?

Essential Nursing Skills for MSN Students

What Kind of Nurse Should I Be? Exploring Nursing Specialties


American Association of Colleges of Nursing, Nursing Fact Sheet

American Association of Medical Colleges, “U.S. Physician Shortage Growing”

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, “Are You Considering a Career as a Family Nurse Practitioner?”

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, “Are You Considering a Career as a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner?”

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, State Practice Environment

American Nurses Association, What Is Nursing?

Healthcare, “The Role of Empathy in Health and Social Care Professionals”

HIPAA Journal, Communication in Nursing

International Council of Nurses, “New Report Calls for Global Action Plan to Address Nursing Workforce Crisis and Prevent an Avoidable Healthcare Disaster”

International Council of Nurses, Sustain and Retain in 2022 and Beyond

Lippincott NursingCenter, “Essential Skills for Nurses: Skills That Are Anything but ‘Soft’”

The Medical Futurist, “8 Digital Health Technologies Transforming the Future of Nurses”

Relias, “13 Qualities of a Good Nurse: Leadership & Personality Characteristics”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered Nurses