How to Become a Dialysis Nurse
Thanks to the amazing medical procedure known as dialysis, people with renal failure can now live full and robust lives. Dialysis nurses use their expertise in kidney disease and treatment to make each dialysis session safe, efficient and effective. This professional is the lifeline for anyone who undergoes this complex procedure.
Dialysis nurses are experts in all types of dialysis, including hemodialysis (in which a machine is used to clean the blood) and peritoneal dialysis (in which a special fluid is injected into the person’s abdominal cavity to absorb toxins). Regardless of the type of dialysis, these nurses carefully monitor the patient’s condition before, during and after the procedure and consult with physicians and technicians as needed. Because kidney disease is complex, dialysis nurses work closely with professionals from many disciplines, including physicians, dietitians, social workers and technicians. They also help patients understand their illness and treatment options and show them how to manage their disease through self-care and medication.
After a kidney transplant, a patient continues to work with a dialysis nurse while adjusting to the new kidney. The nurse watches for signs of infection or organ rejection and prepares a patient to care for himself safely at home. Many dialysis nurses follow up with their former patients to see how they are doing and to make sure they are taking needed medications.
For compassionate people with excellent analytical skills, a career as a dialysis nurse is extremely rewarding. Dialysis nurses see their patients several times a week and often develop close relationships with them. They have the satisfaction of boosting the morale and quality of life for individuals and families facing a serious illness.
Dialysis nurses work in many settings, including:
- Outpatient treatment centers
- Transplant programs
- Home health care agencies
- Hospice and palliative care services
- Nursing homes and long-term care facilities
The schedules of dialysis nurses vary across settings. Nurses working in outpatient clinics are more likely to have regular business hours with occasional evening or weekend appointments. In hospitals, nurses work rotating shifts that include evenings, weekends and holidays. Dialysis nurses who provide in-home care generally schedule around the needs of the patient. In 2010, about 20% of registered nurses (including dialysis nurses) worked part time.
Most dialysis nurses work in clean, well-lit clinical settings, though some also travel to patients’ homes. Hospital nurses spend most of the workday on their feet and frequently bend, stoop and stretch. These professionals must be strong enough to lift and move patients.
Dialysis nurses have frequent contact with hazardous substances, including needles, blood and other bodily fluids. They follow strict safety precautions to prevent injury and infection.
Nurses who wish to specialize in dialysis care must be certified as registered nurses (RNs) or advanced practice nurses.
To become an RN, candidates must earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in nursing. Training takes two to four years and includes hands-on work in many areas of nursing. In addition to their core coursework, aspiring dialysis nurses should build their knowledge base through courses in nephrology, pharmacology and nutrition. They should also gain as much clinical experience as possible caring for dialysis patients.
To become an advanced practice nurse, RNs must first earn a bachelor’s degree. They then complete two to five years of additional study to earn a master’s degree or doctorate in nursing.
When enrolling in a nursing school, it’s important to choose an accredited program. Both the National League for Nursing Accrediting Commission and the American Association of Colleges of Nursing offer searchable program directories on their websites.
Accredited nursing education programs include extensive hands-on experience in clinical settings. Newly certified RNs may complete an optional one-year residency to enhance their skills. All nurses are required to take a certain number of continuing medical education (CME) credits each year.
Licensing and/or Certification
Nurses must be certified before practicing in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. This requires completion of a state-approved training program and a passing score on the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX).
Experienced dialysis nurses often pursue voluntary certification as a Certified Nephrology Nurse (CNN) through the Nephrology Nursing Certification Commission. The credential requires a bachelor’s degree, 3,000 hours of recent experience and 30 hours of documented professional development in the field. To earn the credential, candidates must pass an exam.
Necessary Skills and Qualities
Dialysis nurses rely on their excellent interpersonal skills when working with patients and other professionals. Their natural empathy and compassion helps them to motivate their patients to stick with treatment and make necessary changes. Dialysis nurses also need to be team players who work well with people from many different disciplines.
Because they work long hours around very sick patients, dialysis nurses need excellent self-management skills. They must be emotionally mature and stable in order to support suffering patients without becoming overwhelmed themselves. To protect their own well being, nurses should also practice good self-care, including exercise, nutrition, rest and additional support when needed.
Many dialysis patients suffer from additional chronic conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and drug addiction. Dialysis nurses rely on their attention to detail and strong analytical skills in order to safely manage several conditions at once. This is especially true in the area of medication safety.
Opportunities for Advancement
Experienced dialysis nurses often specialize in the care of certain populations such as pediatric, adult or elderly patients. Others build their expertise in a clinical area such as transplantation, continuous renal replacement therapy or palliative care.
Dialysis nurses may be promoted to supervisory positions such as nurse manager, organ recovery coordinator or transplant coordinator. Others leave the clinical setting to enter teaching, conduct research or serve as consultants to the healthcare, medical equipment and pharmaceutical industries.
Dialysis nurses who hold a master’s degree or doctorate often pursue certification as advanced practice nurses. This allows them to serve as primary care providers of people with kidney disease. In many states, advanced practice nurses write prescriptions and perform many of the same functions as a physician.
Some experienced dialysis nurses transition into nephrology case management. In this role, they provide patient advocacy and ensure continuity of care for patients living with kidney disease.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual median income for registered nurses (including dialysis nurses) was $64,690 in May 2010. The lowest paid 10% earned less than $44,190, and the highest paid 10% earned more than $95,130.
Dialysis nurses can increase their earning potential by completing an advanced degree, holding a specialty certification or working in a supervisory role. Dialysis nurses who work in private industry (pharmaceutical companies, for example) usually earn more than their counterparts at hospitals and clinics.
Employment of registered nurses (including dialysis nurses) is expected to grow by 26% between 2010 - 2020, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is largely due to the aging of the baby boomer generation, which is expected to increase the demand for all types of healthcare services in the next few decades. Because older people are more likely to suffer from kidney failure, the number of people undergoing dialysis is expected to rise.
Demand will be greatest for dialysis nurses who:
- Are nationally certified
- Hold an advanced degree
- Specialize in a key clinical area (for example, transplants)
- Are willing to relocate