The global death toll resulting from violent crime surpasses the toll from armed warfare, the International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN) observes. Every day, people seek healthcare and legal reparation as a result of violent acts ranging from intimate partner abuse and child abuse to sexual assault, trafficking, and terrorism. A relatively new professional role in the healthcare industry that addresses the needs of these victims is that of the forensic nurse.
A forensic nurse brings both compassion and logic to the legal and scientific investigation of violent trauma or death. They strive to not only improve health outcomes but also identify people at risk for violence. These specialty nurses play a crucial role in the relationship between the criminal justice and healthcare systems, with the dual purpose of caring for a patient’s healthcare needs while advocating for justice on their behalf.
The key responsibilities of forensic nurses include:
- Treating people who have been injured by violent acts
- Treating the whole person; caring for physical injuries as well as emotional trauma
- Identifying, collecting, and preserving criminal evidence
- Collaborating with authorities in the legal system
- Giving medical testimony in court
Nurses called to deliver hope and healing in the aftermath of violence and to help bring perpetrators to justice can explore further academic education to support their career goals. A key program is the Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) with a forensic nursing concentration.
Forensic Nurse Salary and Job Outlook
Forensic nurses are highly skilled healthcare professionals with criminal justice training. Because of the complexity of their role, they tend to be well-compensated and in demand.
Forensic Nurse Salary
The median annual salary for forensic nurses was approximately $60,000 as of February 2022, according to Payscale.
As with other nursing roles, education level, geographic location, and years of experience influence the forensic nurse’s salary range. Advanced education may allow a forensic nurse to command a higher salary. While a masters-level nursing degree isn’t required, it can lead to more competitive salary offers. Payscale reports that in July 2022, nurses with an MSN in forensic nursing earned a median annual salary of around $88,000.
Forensic Nurse Job Outlook
In general, healthcare is growing at a considerably faster rate in the U.S. than in other fields. An aging population, a high number of nurses reaching retirement, and regional nursing shortages all mean high demand for registered nurses (RNs). The job outlook for forensic nursing is especially bright. This complex, developing field seeks highly qualified individuals. In 2022, according to Indeed, opportunities for qualified candidates were plentiful.
The job outlook for RNs is expected to grow by about 6% between 2021 and 2031, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which is about the same growth rate as the average for all occupations. The job outlook for nurse practitioners, on the other hand, will surge by about 40% during the same time period, according to the BLS.
Forensic nurses can find job opportunities in settings that include private practices, hospitals, psychiatric facilities, correctional facilities, urgent care clinics, emergency departments, community organizations, and more.
Trends in Forensic Nursing
Forensic nursing is a dynamic and evolving field. A sampling of current research topics featured in a recent issue of the Journal of Forensic Nursing (July/September 2022) includes:
- Violence as a global issue
- Early identification of patients at risk of violence
- Mental illness as a vulnerability for sexual assault
- Clarifying the concept of youth trafficking
- The effect of head injury on incarcerated mothers
Key Skills in Forensic Nursing
The aftermath of violence brings emotional as well as physical trauma. Many crime victims and survivors of terrorism and war experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). People who have been violently injured or sexually abused may be unable to articulate what happened or express their emotions about it. Forensic nurses can help traumatized people heal, physically and emotionally. They do so with a combination of soft skills and core competencies.
Soft Skills of a Forensic Nurse
Because of the uncommon complexity of this nursing role, an effective forensic nurse applies a unique mix of psychosocial skills and analytical skills, including:
- Strong interpersonal communication
- Cultural competency
- Compassion and empathy
- Knowledge of approaches to treating PTSD and other psychological effects of violence
- Level-headedness and professionalism
- Organization and attention to detail
- Analytical thinking
Core Competencies of a Forensic Nurse
A forensic nurse’s salary is so competitive because forensic nurses must be proficient in certain core competencies that support prosecution if a crime is suspected.
Evidence such as clothing and specimens can be crucial to the legal prosecution of a case. However, before forensic nursing emerged as a specialty, such evidence was often lost to legal authorities when a healthcare facility treated the patient because it wasn’t collected and preserved.
Core competencies crucial to handling evidence in support of the prosecution of violent crime include:
- Following proper collection procedures
- Preserving evidence and its chain of custody
In addition, because forensic nurses testify in court and advocate for the rights of their patients, they must possess practical working knowledge of the criminal justice system, including legal and civil rights.
How to Specialize in Forensic Nursing
The importance of forensic nursing to society is clear. The role strikes a delicate balance between a passion for helping people heal from violence and a passion for bringing justice to violent perpetrators. How do you begin your journey on this rewarding and challenging career path? The following are the typical steps to becoming a forensic nurse.
- Become an RN: After you graduate from an accredited nursing program, you still need to pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) to work as a nurse. Aspiring SANE nurses can obtain additional licensure.
- Earn an advanced nursing degree: Although you can obtain two-year or four-year nursing degrees, the degree that will help you develop forensic nursing knowledge and skills—and potentially equip you to compete for a higher forensic nurse salary—is a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) with a specialization in forensic nursing.
- Gain relevant experience: Because forensic nurses need clinical experience, you should seek to practice as a registered nurse in relevant settings such as emergency rooms, pediatrics, and psychiatry.
- Earn certification: Certification helps validate a nurse’s knowledge base and skill set. It can also lead to wider opportunities to compete in the job market and to potentially earn higher pay. A forensic nursing certification for RNs in forensic nursing practice, for example, can be earned through the American Institute of Health Care Professionals (AIHCP).
Many forensic nurses serve in specialized roles that qualify them to compete for higher pay. One such role is serving in a coroner’s office as a death investigator, also known as a nurse coroner.
Nurses in this subspecialty help coroners examine bodies and collect evidence to assist in determining the possible cause of death. The specialized role of a nurse coroner, according to the Houston Chronicle, typically commands a higher forensic nurse salary.
Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner
Another specialized role for those who seek to earn a higher forensic nurse salary — in addition to experiencing the satisfaction of helping people with trauma — is that of sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE). Forensic nurses awarded this designation by the International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN) treat individuals who are harmed by sexual assault, violent behavior, neglect or abandonment.
Provide Dynamic Care as a Forensic Nurse
In the face of an epidemic of violence that constitutes a public health crisis, compassionate and highly skilled forensic nurses are more vital than ever to our society’s well-being.
If you are a nurse called to deliver trauma-informed care and serve as an advocate in the criminal justice system, discover Duquesne University’s online Master of Science program and its Forensic Nursing concentration.
Duquesne is a great place to pursue your professional nursing goals while also learning how you can contribute to a more just and humane world.