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What Does a PRN Job Position Mean in a Hospital Setting?

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The PRN medical abbreviation stands for "pro re nata," a Latin term meaning "whenever necessary." Taking pain meds pro re nata means, for example, that you take them when you have symptoms, not on a regular timetable. Some nurses work a PRN job, meaning rather than having a regular shift, they come in when the workload is heavy enough that the hospital needs extra help.

What's a PRN Do?

To work a PRN shift in a hospital, you need the same qualifications as any other registered nurse (RN). Each state sets its own licensing requirements, but typically, they include a nursing diploma or degree and passing the NCLEX-RN licensing exam. A PRN tackles the same tasks and duties as any other RN, because they:

  • Help perform diagnostic tests.
  • Prepare patients for tests or treatments.
  • Record patient medical histories and symptoms.
  • Give patients medicine and treatments.
  • Use medical equipment.
  • Help devise care plans for patients.
  • Explain to patients or their families how to manage medical problems, once they leave the hospital.

The difference is that an RN on staff works consistent shifts for the same hospital, week after week. A PRN's workload is unpredictable. It depends on where the hospital runs short on staff and needs a PRN or two to provide backup. Some PRNs work on call, for when a hospital has a rush need. Others are scheduled well in advance, for example to replace a nurse who's out on maternity leave.

PRNs are the nursing world's equivalents of freelancers or temps. That frees them up to work a PRN shift for multiple hospitals or for other employers, and to take as many or as few hours in a week as they can handle. Some staff nurses work PRN gigs on their days off to bring in extra money.

Pros and Cons

PRN nursing poses the same challenge as any temp or freelance career: you only get a PRN shift when there's work available. Depending on your skill set and the number of nurses in your community, you may wind up struggling for enough hours to pay your bills. While some people thrive working freelance, others find the uncertainty stressful.

For those who can live with the wild-card aspect, there are number of benefits to a PRN job meaning, for example:

  • You set your own schedule. If you need to be home in the evenings to care for your kids, for instance, you don't work evening shifts.
  • You can work in different departments and specialties. This buffs up your CV with a broad range of experience, and gives you a chance to try fields you might like to concentrate on down the road.
  • If you travel a lot, as a military spouse for instance, working as a PRN in a new area, may be easier than hunting for a new employer every time you relocate.
  • If you're just starting out in your career and can't find full-time work, a PRN shift or three every week can keep a roof over your head.
  • The more hospitals and departments you work for as a PRN, the more people will recognize you as a potential hire if there's an opening. 

From the hospital's perspective, there are plusses to using PRNs. It gives the hospital greater flexibility in staffing, because they don't have to use PRN nurses when things are quiet. They can attract talented RNs who, for whatever reason, can't handle regular full-time work. It's cheaper than hiring a nurse, as the PRN agency handles the work of payroll and HR, and pays any benefits. PRNs also make it easier to operate during the holidays, such as when regular staff is on vacation.