What is Forensic Nursing?

Forensic nursing is the specialty in which the medical/nursing world and the legal world intersect. Forensic nurses may work as sexual assault nurse examiners (SANE), coroner’s investigators and correctional nurses, or offer consulting services as expert witnesses.

A forensic nurse begins her career by becoming a registered nurse. She may have an associate degree, nursing diploma or bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN). For those who are planning a nursing career, the BSN is probably the best option of the three. First, many hospitals (which employ the majority of registered nurses) prefer or require a BSN. It’s always important to begin a nursing career in an organization that offers a wide variety of nursing experiences, and hospitals provide that experience. Second, the BSN is a better stepping stone for the nurse who wants to pursue her education at the post-graduate level. Certification in forensic nursing is available from the International Association of Forensic Nursing and the American Nurses Credentialing Center.

Forensic nurses must also complete specialized training on the legal aspects of medical care, assault and violent death. For example, the forensic nurse must must understand the legal system and know how to testify in court so that the jury understands all medical aspects of of the case, such as the nature of injuries, scope of practice and standard of care. They must understand the chain of custody for evidence and how to ensure that all findings will be admissible in court. Forensic nurses regularly consult with legal authorizes and law enforcement personnel and must understand the roles of those individuals as well.



One of the more common types of forensic nurse is the SANE, or sexual assault nurse examiner. These nurses are contacted when a patient comes into an emergency room or clinic after reporting a sexual assault. The nurse takes a patient history, performs a physical and emotional assessment of the patient and collects specimens like blood, saliva, urine or vaginal swabs for DNA testing. She may also take photographs for medical evidence, especially in cases of physical assault. Like all nurses, one of the most important roles of a forensic nurse is to provide emotional support to traumatized patients after an assault.

Coroner’s investigators collect evidence about deaths, including automobile accidents, unexpected or unattended deaths and suspected homicide. Some forensics nurses work with women or children who have been abused, or those who have suffered elder abuse. Correctional nurses work in jails, prisons and juvenile detention centers, where they may manage chronic medical conditions and perform screening for substance abuse or infectious disease. Correctional nurses may also gather evidence in cases of prison assaults in addition to their usual nursing duties.
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2016-25443  Exp. 10/17