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How to Start an IV [Ultimate Beginner’s Guide]

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Learning how to start an IV is a very important skill that every nurse needs to know. Inpatient and ER nurses deal with IVs every day – whether they are inserting them, removing them, or administering fluids or medications through them. If you are new to nursing, then you will need to learn how to insert an IV with confidence and knowledge!

When to start an IV?

The short answer to this is “when an IV is ordered”. However, it is important to critically think as a nurse, and anticipate what will need to be done. Especially as an ER nurse, you may see your patient before the Provider and can start placing an IV if indicated.

If you work as an inpatient nurse, most patients should have at least an IV, midlines, PICC lines, or other central access. These IVs often go bad, and you will need to know how to start an IV in these settings as well.

INDICATIONS to Start an IV:

IV FLUIDS OR MEDS icon

IV FLUIDS OR MEDS

IV fluids or medications is the main reason an order will be placed to start an IV.

DIAGNOSTIC IMAGING icon

DIAGNOSTIC IMAGING

CTs or MRIs often require an IV for IV contrast to help visualize the anatomy, vasculature, and any potential abnormality going on.

INPATIENT ADMISSION icon

INPATIENT ADMISSION

Most facilities will require an IV be placed if the patient is being admitted. However, the patient can refuse this.

When to NOT start an IV?

Contraindications to starting an IV:

There is no outright contraindication to placing an IV, but certain factors will exclude specific locations. These include extremities with:

FISTULAS/GRAFTS icon

FISTULAS/GRAFTS

Dialysis patients may have AV fistulas or grafts. You should NOT start an IV in these limbs unless specifically allowed.

MASTECTOMY icon

MASTECTOMY

Patients with a history of mastectomy or lymph node dissection should not have IVs placed on that side if possible. This can cause/worsen lymphedema.

BLOOD CLOTS icon

BLOOD CLOTS

Patient’s with an Active DVT in their arm should not have IVs placed in the same arm – this can further cause irritation of the veins and worsen thrombi formation.

BURNS OR EDEMA icon

BURNS OR EDEMA

Significant burns or edema should not have an IV placed if possible over the burnt or edematous area.

INFECTION icon

INFECTION

Do not place an IV overlying an infection like cellulitis. This can introduce bacteria into the blood and lead to sepsis.

It may be best to avoid limbs with significant motor or sensory deficits, as there is unclear evidence that may suggest increased DVT in these extremities. If their arm is numb, they also may not feel when it is infiltrated.

What IV Gauge should you use?

The IV gauge will determine how big the actual needle and catheter are.

The bigger the IV – the faster fluid can be administered. Unfortunately, bigger sizes are also more painful and usually more difficult to start an IV. Bigger IVs also come with an increased risk of phlebitis and can cause some serious irritation to the vein.

24 GAUGE: THE BABY NEEDLE

These are typically used for babies and generally should be avoided in adults. They are very short, flimsy, and won’t last long.

  • Good for: Infants
  • Bad for: Most other scenarios

22 GAUGE: THE SAFE CHOICE

This is used for many kids and adults, especially older adults with fragile “easily-blown” veins. These are usually OK for IV contrast dye as well, but not for CTA. These are also generally easier to place.

  • Good for: Peds, many Med-Surg adult patients, easily blown veins
  • OK for: IV contrast, blood return
  • Bad for: Massive trauma or fluid resuscitation needs, CT Angiography

20 GAUGE: THE ONE-SIZE-FITS-ALL

20g IVs are an ER nurse’s best friend when you have to start an IV. This is because a 20g IV is adequate for multiple fluid boluses, IV medication infusions, and most CTA requirements. They often give great blood return and labs can often be drawn without hemolysis.

  • Good for: Most adult patients, CT Angiography
  • OK for: Emergency situations (code blues, RRTs)
  • Bad for: Massive trauma or fluid resuscitation needs

18 GAUGE: THE BIG DADDY

18g IVs are your standard “large bore” IV. These are great in critical situations as they provide for rapid administration of fluids or blood products, rapid infusion of critical medications. The down-side is they tend to be a little more difficult to place in the absence of large veins.

  • Good for: Critical or emergency situations, rapid fluid administration, CTA, severe sepsis, burns, acute MI, etc
  • Bad for: Small, fragile veins

14-16G: THE MONSTERS

The 16g and 14g IVs are very large, and unnecessary for most indications. However, in critical situations these may serve you well.

Also Check out: “10 IV Insertion Tips for Nurses”

Start an IV Clinical Note

Some nurses may tell you to place the largest IV catheter that the vein can support. However, this is contrary to good nursing judgment. If you ask my friend Brian (@TheIVGuy), he will tell you that you should choose your size based on the appropriate ordered therapy and anticipated needs. This means that for most patients, a 20-22 gauge is likely the best and safest choice.

What Equipment to Start an IV?

Before learning how to start an IV, you need to first know which equipment you will need. This becomes like second nature, but when starting out as a new nurse, this is often important to memorize. For an IV insertion, you will need:

IV INSERTION KIT icon when you start an iv

IV INSERTION KIT

These kits should include:

  • Chlorhexadine or alcohol swab
  • Tegaderm dressing
  • 2×2 gauze
  • Tourniquet
  • Tape

IV CATHETER icon

IV CATHETER

Your IV catheter of choice, usually 18-22g.

VACUTAINER icon for start an IV

VACUTAINER

A blood transfer device will be needed if you are planning on drawing blood directly you start an IV.

EXTENSION LOOP OR CAP icon

EXTENSION LOOP OR CAP

You will need to place an IV cap or extension loop onto the IV after insertion.

SALINE FLUSH icon after you start an IV to flush the line with

SALINE FLUSH

Make sure you have one or two flushes on hand.

Once you have your equipment, you are ready to know how to start an IV.

How to Start an IV

  1. PREPARE THE PATIENT to Start an IV

    To start an IV, you will first want to wash your hands (always the right starting point). You will also want to use universal precautions, so put on a pair of clean gloves as you will be possibly interacting with the patient’s blood.

    You should already have an idea of where you are going to place the IV and which size IV catheter you are going to use.

    IVPlace the tourniquet on the patient’s arm proximal to the area of cannulation. Look for straight, large veins. Palpate them as veins may not always be visible but can still be felt. Strong veins will have a good amount of bounce to them.

    Once you are happy with your vein selection, you can start prepping your area. Use a chlorhexidine (CHG) or alcohol swab to gently clean the surrounding area for 30 seconds, and allow it to completely dry. Start with the center and move outward in a circular fashion with alcohol, while CHG requires a back and forth scrubbing action.

    With deeper non-visible veins, some nurses will also apply alcohol to a finger of their non-dominant hand to help palpate during the procedure without “contaminating” the site. Please note that this is not the best practice for infection control. You should never tear off the finger of your glove either, instead – learn to palpate with your gloves on.

  2. PREPARE YOUR IV KIT

    While your site is drying, open your 10cc flush and your extension loop and/or cap.

    If you are drawing blood, hook up the blood transfer device to the dry extension loop or cap. Otherwise, you can connect the flush and prime the loop or cap. Set this aside back into your kit to keep it clean.

    Open up your IV, take off the needle cap, and twist the end of the catheter to make sure it is loose and ready for cannulation.

  3. HOLD SKIN TAUT when you start an IV

    Hold the patient’s skin taut with your non-dominant hand to secure the vein underneath, stabilizing it from rolling, and smoothing the skin for insertion.

  4. PLAN THE RIGHT ANGLE

    Place the tip of the needle against the skin at a 10-30 degree angle when you start an IV. The deeper the vein, the more angular your approach will need to be.

  5. INSERT THE NEEDLE

    With the bevel up, puncture the skin and advance through to the vein.

    If done correctly, you should see a flashback of blood in the flash chamber and/or catheter. This location will depend on the brand and size of the specific IV catheter. Once a flashback is seen, lower the angle even more parallel with the skin, and advance the whole unit about 2-6mm.

Clinical Note

If you initially don’t see flash of blood, pull the needle and catheter both out almost completely (but do not leave the epidermis). Re-palpate the vein, adjust your angle and advance again. This is termed “digging” and some patients will not tolerate this well. However, oftentimes it may only take 2 or 3 “digs” until success.

  1. ADVANCE CATHETER ONLY

    Now advance only the catheter forward, sliding it off of the needle and cannulating the vein. If done correctly, the catheter should easily slip into the vein without resistance. If there is dimpling of the skin, the IV is likely within the extravascular space.
    advancing catheter when you start an IV

  2. HOLD PRESSURE AND RETRACT 

    Before pressing the activation button to retract the needle – take off the tourniquet and apply digital pressure beyond the catheter tip.

    Some brands will have a septum or shield function with gauges 20-24, which prevents the backflow of blood and negates the need for venous compression.

    Press your activation button to retract the needle.

  3. DRAW BLOOD After you Start an IV

    If ordered, now is the point where you will draw your blood. Hook up your loop/cap with the blood transfer device to the IV hub.

    Draw your blood tubes, and flush with a 10cc pulse flush afterward.If blood is ordered, you can immediately draw this after placing a new IV. If you are not drawing blood, skip this step and instead just connect the primed cap or extension loop to the IV and flush.

    After flushing a few mLs, make sure you can pull back blood return. This is reassurance that the IV is in the correct place after you start an IV. Then pulse flush the remaining amount through.

  4. SECURE THE IV

    Secure the IV with a securement device or tape, and a dressing like Tegaderm. Make sure the insertion site is covered. If you used an extension loop, secure the loop with tape as this can easily get caught on something and pull out the IV.

    If the patient is confused or may try pulling the IV out, wrap the IV with Coban, only leaving the cap accessible.

    Administer any medications or fluids through the IV as ordered. and Viola – you can check “Start an IV” off your task list!

How to REMOVE an IV

Knowing how to start an IV is important, but you also need to know how to remove an IV! If the patient is discharged or if there is a compilation with the IV, it will need to be removed. Removing the IV is easier, and can be performed by a nurse or a patient care assistant.

 

  1. Collect 2×2 gauze and tape or bandaid
  2. Wash your hands and don clean gloves
  3. While holding the catheter in place, start peeling off the Tegaderm and/or tape. Use an alcohol pad if very sticky and painful.
  4. Once the dressing is no longer secured to the skin, place a 2×2 gauze over the insertion site, and pull out the IV in a smooth fashion.
  5. Hold pressure for 1-2 minutes until bleeding as stopped
  6. Dress with gauze and tape or bandaid

WANT TO LEARN MORE?

If you want to learn more about cardiac arrhythmias, I have a complete video course “ECG Rhythm Master”, made specifically for nurses which goes into so much more depth and detail.

With this course you will be able to:

  • Identify all cardiac rhythms inside and out
  • Understand the pathophysiology of why and how arrhythmias occur
  • Learn how to manage arrhythmias like an expert nurse
  • Become proficient with emergency procedures like transcutaneous pacing, defibrillation, synchronized shock, and more!

I also include some great free bonuses with the course, including:

  • ECG Rhythm Guide eBook (190 pages!)
  • Code Cart Med Guide (code cart medication guide)
  • Code STEMI (recognizing STEMI on an EKG)

Check out the course!

5 Questions to Ask Before Calling the Doctor

Communication is an essential element in coordinating patient care in every clinical setting. Communication within the hospital is especially important due to the fact that there are often critical patients, and a patient’s status can change at any second. In order to convey this change of status accurately and provide the patient with the best care possible, it is imperative for the nurse and the provider to have great communication.

As a nurse, sometimes it can be difficult to know just what your patient needs. When you don’t know – it can be nerve-wracking trying to decide your next action. Do you call the doctor immediately, do you just ignore it and hope for the best, or do you have to call an RRT?

When you’re unsure – it’s common to call the doctor or provider because that is a frequent solution as they often know what to do. However, not every patient issue needs to be called to the provider. Decreasing these unnecessary calls can increase your efficiency and problem-solving skills, but additionally will allow the providers to be more efficient as well. To help you with the decision-making process – these are 5 questions to ask yourself before you call the doctor.

1. Is the Patient Stable?

Learning to be a great nurse involves learning how to prioritize. Whenever there is a change in patient status or a reason to call the provider, always ask yourself – “Is the patient stable?”. This will oftentimes seem obvious but calling a Rapid Response can be nerve-wracking. What if you call one and everyone thinks you’re dumb because it wasn’t necessary? This is a common worry as a new graduate RN. As you gain experience in nursing – you will be able to more easily be able to identify the need for an RRT when it presents itself. However, in order to assess your patient’s stability – you really must do two things first (in this order!):

Physical Assessment

You must lay eyes on your patient. Let me repeat that – YOU MUST LAY EYES ON YOUR PATIENT. You may not even need to touch the patient and already acknowledge the need for immediate emergent intervention. If they are unresponsive and not breathing and/or don’t have a pulse – you can immediately activate an emergency response (CODE BLUE). However, it won’t always be so black and white – so the next step is to assess their vital signs.

Vital Signs

Obtaining a new set of vital signs is imperative in order to assess the stability of a patient. “Is the patient stable” really just means “are their vital signs stable”. A patient who doesn’t have a pulse has a HR of 0 – so you don’t need to grab the Dynamap and grab a full set of vitals (spoiler – they won’t have any!). But it’s usually less clear. The patient may have increased lethargy, increased SOB (but not in acute respiratory failure), new chest pain, or any other changes of status. Getting these patient’s vital signs will determine whether or not they are stable. A patient who is SOB, in the tripod position, has an SPO2 of 80% on 4L NC, and RR of 48 – this patient needs an RRT or whatever emergency response team activated immediately. A patient with COPD who is moderately SOB, is 88% on 2L NC, and RR of 28 and mildly labored – this patient can likely be handled over the phone with changes in respiratory treatments and oxygen therapy.

If the patient has been deemed stable – you can move onto the next question.

Related content:

2. Is there more information I need to know first?

This will obviously depend on the situation and will require some investigation. If the patient is SOB – what is their history? Do they have any related diseases such as Asthma, COPD, or CHF? If they have back pain – have they had this before? What do they usually take for it? It’s possible the same complaint or situation may have happened earlier in their hospital stay – what was done about it and how did the patient respond?

Investigating trends in their labs or vital signs is also important. If a patient’s blood pressure is 180/90 – what has their BP been running? The same holds true for hypotension. A patient whose BP is 90/40 but who’s baseline is 90s/40s is important to know. If you get a call for an elevated troponin or lactic acid level – what were their previous levels? Note all of this information for when you have to call the provider – so you can anticipate what they will ask and assist them in making the appropriate clinical decision.

The next important step is to check the orders that already exist.

3. Are there any PRN orders?

Many times patient’s will have “PRNs” or medications “as needed” that are already ordered by the provider. This means they have a medication or order which can be used for pre-established reasons that the provider must list. Look at their MAR and see if they have any PRN medications.

Some frequent PRN medications are as follows:

  • Melatonin 3-9mg PRN for sleeping difficulty
  • Acetaminophen 650mg Q4H PRN for Fever > 101.4 F
  • Ondansetron 4mg IV PRN for nausea or vomiting
  • Morphine 2mg IV Q4H PRN for severe pain
  • Hydromorphone 0.5mg IV Q4H PRN for severe pain
  • Ketorolac 15mg IV Q6H PRN for moderate pain
  • Hydralazine 10mg IV Q6H PRN for SBP >160
  • Ipratropium-Albuterol Inhl Q4H PRN for SOB or wheezing

Other Frequent PRN orders include:

  • Oxygen via NC PRN – titrate SPO2 > 94%
  • Heating pad PRN for back pain
  • The patient may shower PRN

No matter the PRN order – it is your job as the nurse to look for which PRNs are available to you, and if you can utilize them accordingly. If your patient above who is mildly SOB and wheezing with a history of COPD – give them one of their Duonebs if it is appropriate. If they just received a treatment and still have not improved – then calling the provider is likely necessary.

Also check out my Nursing Medical Abbreviations graphic!

4. Can I phone a friend?

Sometimes we may not know what to do with our patients, but we may also be unsure if we need to call the doctor for it. Asking a fellow nurse’s opinion on what needs to be done for your patient can improve your problem-solving and clinical judgment. Your nursing colleagues, especially those with more experience or even just more skill in a particular area – may be the perfect person to ask of their nursing opinion. Do they feel like its necessary to call the doctor – or is there a nursing intervention that can be tried first instead? Are you unsure of what EKG rhythm you are reading and think you might see a run of VTACH but aren’t sure – ask a nurse who is good at rhythm interpretation.

Now I am NOT saying that asking a fellow nurse is a replacement for calling the provider. However, sometimes bouncing ideas off of our colleagues can save us from having to make an unnecessary call. Even calling the nursing supervisor may be a resource which you can utilize if appropriate. However – for a new significant change in patient status or vital signs – the provider will need to be called regardless.

5. Am I calling the right person?

OK – so you know that you’ve exhausted your other options, you have the background information you need… now you just need to actually call the provider. But make sure you are calling the right provider. First – check to see who the attending physician is on record. Is there an in-house medical team such as a hospitalist group, house coverage, or medical resident team that covers that attending? If not – you may need to reach out directly to the attending physician’s service to speak with whoever is on call. This will be facility-specific, so you may not always know if you are new. This is where asking your colleagues for assistance can benefit you.

Reaching out to the medical team (listed above) is common and usually, they can help! However, sometimes they are not the right person to be notified in certain instances. Are there any specialists on board? If Infectious Disease is seeing a patient and there is a positive blood culture – it would be better to put a call out to them instead. If a patient who is on dialysis has uncontrolled high BP, placing a call to nephrology would be a better choice as well. You can reach out to the general medical team – but don’t be surprised if they ask you to place another call to the specialists instead.

Now you are fully prepared to make the phone call and accurately communicate what is going on with your patient, you will have investigated the background information, you will have obtained vital signs and done a quick assessment, and you will have recommendations for medications or orders at the ready (thanks to the other nurses you’ve asked!). As you can see – this perfectly sets you up to provide a great phone report to the provider! To learn more about giving a great phone report to a provider and steps to calling the doctor – you can read all about it here!

Calling the doctor doesn’t have to be scary. If you critically think your way through these important steps, and utilize my IMSBAR communication style – you WILL succeed and you will be amazed at how far a little preparation can go.

You may also want to read:

Calling the Doctor – Giving Nurse to Provider report

This post contains affiliate links, which means I get a commission if you decide to purchase through my links, at no cost to you. Please read affiliate disclosure for more information

When I first started working as a bedside RN, one of the aspects of the job that gave me a deep sense of anxiety was having to call the doctor on a patient. Sure – some of them were super nice – but many of them were impatient and rude. Not giving the correct phone report in a format that the physician or Advanced Practice Provider (APP) is looking for can create tension and miscommunication. If you utilize my technique for giving phone report to the physician – the patient’s situation will be more effectively communicated and the encounter will go much smoother.

In this article, I am going to share with you all an effective method for giving a quick report to the physician or APP when you call them in the inpatient setting! I am uniquely positioned to help with this because I work as a Nurse Practitioner in the hospital and receive 20-30 calls per night from floor nurses. I have noticed many improvements that can be made to improve communication – so keep reading!

Step 1: Introduce yourself and the patient

“Hi, My name is Michelle and I’m calling from 1G. I’m the nurse taking care of Anita Lopez in 230-2. Are you familiar with her?”

First you need to introduce who you are, where you’re calling from, and who you’re calling about. I can’t tell you how many times the nurse has called me and launched into a full explanation about the patient and then I have to ask “Who is the patient!?” Oftentimes the inpatient Provider is at the computer and can look up the patient’s chart while the nurse is talking.

Sometimes over the phone it is difficult to understand last names – especially if accents are involved. When you say the patient’s name, it helps if you say “Anita Lopez, that’s L-O-P-E-Z”. Spell out the last name because oftentimes we have censuses pulled up from each floor or hospital which are ordered alphabetically. We usually do not need the spelling of the first name.

It also can be helpfult to include where they are located – their unit and room number. Additionally – the Provider you are calling may only cover certain attending physicians (as is the case at my job). If this is so – give the attending physician as well.

The next step is to ask if they are familiar with the patient. If I just admitted the patient – I don’t need a full explanation of why they’re here and what their medical history is. However, many specialists or Providers who are on call may not be very familiar with the patient yet. It always helps to ask and most Providers won’t give you an issue by asking.

Step 2: Brief Medical History

“She’s a 78 year old female who came in on 11/28 for a COPD exacerbation. She has a PMHx of COPD, Smoking, Hypertension, Hyperlipidemia, and afib which she’s on Coumadin for”

In the inpatient setting – I always want to know why the patient was admitted. This gives some context to the patient’s situation. If a patient who came in for COPD exacerbation is complaining of a headache – that typically deems less investigation than a patient who came in for a TIA or a mechanical fall and is now having a headache.

Additionally, a brief overview of their medical history should be given with emphasis on important/related diseases. Hit the following:

  • Cardiac: HTN, CAD (any stents or CABG?), Afib (anticoagulants?), CHF
  • Pulmonary: COPD, asthma, Lung cancer
  • Renal: AKI, CKD, ESRD (on dialysis?)
  • Vascular: DVT/PE, PAD/PVD

You usually don’t need to go into any details regarding surgical history unless it is directly relevant to this admission in some way.

Step 3: Why You’re Calling (SITUATION)

“The patient is complaining of increased SOB”

This is pretty simple. Why are you calling the Provider in the first place? Usually this is due to :

  • A new complaint: Chest pain, SOB, Headache
  • A medication need: sleeping medication, breathing tx, pain medicine
  • A change in the patient’s status: Respiratory distress, Unresponsive, confusion
  • A critical lab value : elevated troponin, elevated lactic, positive blood cultures

No matter why you’re calling – simply state it and then jump into the following step – the background of the situation.

Step 4: Situation Background

“They are ordered duonebs q6h but has nothing ordered PRN”

By this point you already given the important information such as who you are, who the patient is, where they are, why they were admitted, and why you’re calling. Now you can get to the heart of the call and give context to the situation at hand.

In this instance, the patient is SOB and has COPD. Are they ordered breathing treatments and how often? No matter why you’re calling, it helps to ask these questions:

  • Has this happened before and what was done? Did it help?
  • Are they currently on any medication for the situation?
  • What trends have been occurring (i.e. if you’re calling for high BP, how have their BPs been?)

Investigating the background of the situation can really help communicate the correct need to the Provider.

Step 5: Assessment

“The patient’s RR is 24 rpm and SPO2 is 90% on 2L NC. They’re breathing is non-labored, lung sounds show expiratory wheezes throughout”

As the nurse, you are responsible for assessing the patient first when there is a change in their status. This doesn’t mean you need to do an entire nursing assessment and report that, but get their vital signs and a do a quick physical assessment of the systems involved (I.e. If you’re calling for SOB – tell me how they are breathing and what their lungs sound like).

Please make sure you get an UPDATED set of vital signs whenever there is a change in patient status. Their vital signs from the 3-4 hours ago are not helpful to the current situation (depending on why you’re calling). That’s just good practice.

Step 6: Recommendations

“Can you please add albuterol PRN for inbetween scheduled duonebs”

Nurses are the eyes, ears, and hands of health care. They are on the front lines, are well-educated, and usually have great recommendations to help their patient. Maybe you know just what the patient needs to feel better.

Another important recommendation is asking if the Provider can evaluate the patient in-person. Sometimes it is difficult to convey your uneasiness about how a patient looks – even if their “numbers” look fine. Asking the Provider to personally evaluate the patient (if needed and indicated) is a great way to ensure the patient is in good hands.

Related Content: Tips for New Nurse Practitioners

– – – – – –

So Yes, it is SBAR, but with some important introductory steps beforehand. But what if you’re a Provider and need to know how to call consults to other Providers? I’m going to let you in on a secret – these steps are exactly what I do when I call a Provider for a consult as an NP. There really is no difference between a good nurse-to-provider report or a provider-to-provider SBAR.

As long as all the relevant information is conveyed in a concise and organized manner, you will be sure to impress the Providers you are calling, and ensure that proper communication is maintained – giving your patient the best possible care.

Top 6 Charting Tips for Newbie Nurses

The joys of nursing: making a difference, decent pay, and… charting!? Adjusting to the new role as a medical professional is exciting, but unfortunately, there is SO much to learn that nursing school unfortunately just can’t teach you.

One obstacle that new nurses face is learning how to chart quickly and effectively. Learning a new computer system, especially when you’ve never even professionally charted, can be daunting.

Learning time-management and charting skills are difficult enough, let alone actually taking care of the patients! Use these Top 6 Charting Tips for Newbie Nurses to help you transition into the nursing role and help you chart like a pro!

1. Have a System

A critical factor in organization and time-management as a nurse is to have a system for whatever you do. If you go through a literal checklist, you are less likely to miss something, especially as a new nurse!

It can be difficult to chart an entire patient encounter and not miss details, and going through your personal system that you’ve created can help you minimize charting errors. Remember this charting tip throughout the rest of the tips below – developing your personal system is critical in your time-management as a nurse.

Knowing where you write things down, where you chart things, and in what order will help you stay organized in a chaotic environment.

Your system should be flexible as patients and hospitals can be unpredictable. With time, you will be able to adjust your system to be less task-oriented and more holistic.

2. Write it Down

Something that almost EVERY organized nurse does is write down their patient information in some form or another.

You are probably somewhat familiar with this as you likely wrote down every piece of information you could in clinicals. But now you’re in the big leagues – you are responsible for your patient and the information you write down is important.

Seeing multiple patients with similar scenarios, it is easy to forget specific information or mix up information between two similar patients. What you write down will be your brain.

When a physician or other medical professional asks you a question about your patient – the last thing you want is to NOT know! Even if it takes you 10 seconds to find on your paper – this is better than saying “I don’t know”, and physicians and other healthcare staff will respect that.

Many different electronic medical records (EMRs), especially within the hospital, will have printable “patient care sheets” which can provide you with information in the medical record such as the patient’s demographics, medical history, ordered medications, and recent labs.

This can be VERY helpful – but you must have a system in place. Find a specific place to write down the information that isn’t pre-populated.

Where is their IV and what gauge? What is their history of present illness, aka what brought them into the hospital? Find specific places to write this information down on the sheet, and this will help you stay organized and be able to draw accurate information quickly and efficiently for accurate patient charting.

Quickly write down your patient assessments, as well as any new information the patient presents. I also recommend writing down vital signs on your sheets as well to be able to monitor and trend them accordingly. Sometimes when just reading them on the screen, you can miss important information.

Learn your medical abbreviations. If there’s not one – make it up! As long as YOU understand what you are writing – it serves its purpose. This will save you time AND wrist-pain.

If you’d like, I have free patient care organization sheets which you can print and copy to write down patient information and stay organized. You can sign up with your email for free here.

One last note – write down your times; the time you assessed them, the time you emptied their urinal, the time you assisted them to the bathroom, you get the point.

I can’t even count how much time I wasted trying to estimate what time I performed some sort of patient care because I didn’t write it down.

3. RTC

This is probably my BIGGEST recommendation – learn to chart it in real-time.

This is one of the key skills I’ve learned which tremendously helped my first year on a telemetry floor, and subsequently my time in the emergency department.

This is easier if you have a portable computer on wheels, as many units will. By real-time, I don’t mean while the patient is talking. Focus on the patient and give them your undivided attention and assessment skills.

Chart directly AFTER your patient encounter, exit the room (or stay in), and set aside 5 minutes or so to chart everything that occurred right outside the room.

This accomplishes a few things:

  • Everything is FRESH in your mind, and your charting will be more accurate.
  • If you realize you forgot to ask or assess something and realize it while you are charting, you can just walk right into the room and ask/assess the missing information. This happens much more than you expect!

As a new nurse learning a new charting system, you may not be able to finish the entire chart within 5 minutes. If not, I recommend still setting aside about 5 minutes directly after seeing the patient to chart.

Start with your patient assessment, as this is what will be the most difficult to remember specifics later on (you’re going to be doing 5+ assessments).

If you do not get to your patient care plans, patient education, tasks, or another facility-specific charting, that is okay! You can chart this information when you have some downtime later. Just keep a checklist and know what else needs to be charted to come back to later. You will get quicker with time!

4. Nancy Drew it

Once you get to know the electronic medical record, you can really start to use it to streamline your patient care and investigation skills.

One way you can utilize the system is to find information that you didn’t write down (like you should have). One common way I “Nancy Drew’d It” was when I forgot to write down times I performed patient care.

You can go back into the system and cross-check your times. By this I mean, look to see something already charted in the system that you can relate back to when you performed the task.

Did you administer the patient’s medications 10 minutes after your assessment? Look into the EMAR and see what time the medication was administered (already charted in the system), and subtract 10 minutes. Easy enough right?

Learning the EMR and being able to navigate it quickly and efficiently will help you gather appropriate patient information. Learn to look back at old labs (I’m talking 6-12 months ago.. What exactly is their baseline creatinine?), at old medication lists, at imported data from primary care offices, pharmacy information, and at History & Physicals from previous admissions.

Your specific charting software will limit or expand your ability to do this, but all EMR software will have ways of gathering information which you will learn to navigate with time.

5. Work Smart!

As a nurse, you work hard enough! When you are able, try working smart!

If your EMR allows, duplicate a previous assessment and adjust what needs to be changed based on your assessment. Whether it is your assessment or another nurse’s, it really doesn’t matter – just make sure that the charting reflects your actual assessment.

This mainly just saves you mouse clicks – but also your valuable time.

Providers have shortcuts with charting as well. When dictating or typing their H&Ps, they often utilize “macros” or templates that list out a normal Review of Systems and Physical Exam. They change what needs to be changed and it allows them to chart relatively quickly.

Unfortunately, nurses tend to have to chart in a less convenient way, which usually involves multiple clicks, checkboxes, and forms. This is convenient for coding and billing, as well as for insurance companies for data mining purposes, but it is NOT convenient for the nurses.

When the EMR allows, it will save you a good amount of time by duplicating an assessment. Some EMRs will have offer better functionality in this aspect, and others will not allow it at all. It will also depend on the facility and its policies regarding charting duplication.

6. CYA

Nurses are the backbone of the healthcare industry. Unfortunately, the responsibility of our patient’s health ultimately can trickle down to the RN taking care of them, and this can be stressful.

A nurse can find themselves in legal trouble if a medical error occurs and he or she did not catch it (or worse – caused it).

Due to the unfortunate trend in patients suing hospitals and staff, it is vitally important to cover yourself with your charting. Chart EVERYTHING that you can.

Always document each notification you made to the Provider, and the conversations you have with the patient/family. Use direct quotes when possible, even if what was said might not be rated PG…

When in doubt, inform your charge nurse or director of anything that you don’t feel comfortable with – and CHART it! By initiating the chain of command, you did your duty as the nurse.


Hopefully, with these charting tips, you’ll be a little less stressed about charting and able to focus more on what truly matters – patient care!

Drop a comment below if you have any other charting tips that will come in handy for new and experienced nurses alike! As always, let me know of any other blog suggestions you’d like written about!

Nurse Charting Nurse Documentation Abbreviations