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Each state regulates the practice of nursing, which means that laws regarding nursing practice, education, licensing and other issues differ from one state to the next. Many of the laws and regulations are developed to help protect the public from incompetent or unethical practitioners, according to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. Most states perform background checks for that purpose.
Background checks can reveal information about convictions for criminal activities that may put patients at risk. A nurse who is convicted of child abuse, for example, may be a risk for pediatric patients. Some nurses might have convictions for extortion, drug dealing, sexual abuse or other behavior to which patients in their care might be vulnerable. These issues are considered so serious that some colleges and universities also perform background checks before they allow a candidate to enter a nursing program.
Boards of Nursing
Although all registered nurses (RNs) and licensed practical nurses (LPNs) take national-level exams -- the NCLEX-RN and NCLEX-PN -- to become licensed, the actual nursing license is issued by the state in which the nurse wants to practice. Most states have a board of nursing that oversees both RNs and LPNs, according to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN). California, Georgia, Louisiana and West Virginia have a board for RNs and a board for LPNs -- called licensed vocational nurses (LVNs) in California. In Nebraska, advanced practice nurses have a separate board. Each board develops regulations surrounding scope of practice, initial licensing, renewals, fees, disciplinary actions and background checks.
State Regulations Vary
In those states that do require background checks, regulations vary. Some require them only for initial licensure and some require them for both initial licensure and relicensure. Missouri, for example, requires a criminal background check for initial licensure, as do New Jersey and North Carolina, according to the law firm of Siskind and Susser, which specializes in immigration law and advises nurses who work in the United States. on visas. Texas requires fingerprints for the criminal background check. California performs a background check for both RNs and LVNs at initial licensure, or for nurses who have a license in another state and ask for endorsement of the out-of-state license, according to the NCSBN.
States Without Background Checks
Some states include a section on the application for the applicant to indicate if they have ever had a criminal conviction. If the applicant answers yes, the state may perform a background check. In Alabama, the state performs a criminal background check if the licensee is under investigation or if there is reason to believe she has a criminal history. Arizona requires both state and federal criminal background checks. A few states, however, do not require background checks. As of 2012, these included Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin, according to the Council of State Governments.
- National Council of State Boards of Nursing: What You Need to Know about Nursing Licensure and State Boards of Nursing
- National Council of State Boards of Nursing: State Information Regarding Criminal Background Checks for Nurse Licensure Applicants
- Boise State University: Background Checks Will Be Required for All Nursing Students
- American Journal of Nursing: AJN Reports - Protecting the Public from Bad Nurses
- The Council of State Governments: Resolution Supporting Criminal Background Checks for Nurses Applying For State Licensure
Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.