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Ready, set, go! How to return to the nursing workforce


Are you an RN who has been out of the workforce? Your talents, experience and expertise are needed in all healthcare settings. While technology and treatments have changed, human responses to illness and injury remain the same. Patients have pain, anxiety, and fear. They experience cardiopulmonary failure. Families and patients need health education. They need a nurse. They need you.

If you are contemplating a return to nursing practice, here are three steps to help you succeed.

Get ready…

If your RN license has expired, you will need to enroll in a reinstatement course. Check with your state board of nursing for your state’s requirements for license reinstatement. If you have a valid RN license, explore nursing refresher programs. Nursing refresher programs prepare you to enter practice at the level of a beginning staff nurse who works with a medical/surgical adult population. A refresher course does not replace a hospital or agency orientation nor does it prepare you to work in a specialized setting such as pediatrics, obstetrics, or psychiatry. Your state board of nursing may maintain an online listing of nursing refresher programs offered in your state. You can check online with your local schools of nursing and hospitals to learn about their offerings and prices. See below for ideas as to what to look for in a refresher course.

What to look for in an RN refresher course


  • Content on pharmacology, current treatment for common diseases (for example, diabetes, heart disease, pulmonary disease)
  • Content on current practice laws, ethics, and legal updates
  • Skills lab to practice nursing skills, including patient assessment common procedures
  • Simulation lab to practice critical thinking skills related to assessments, interventions, and evaluations.


  • Clinical experience on an inpatient, medical/surgical unit with an experienced staff nurse as preceptor
  • Group clinical experience on an inpatient, medical/surgical unit with a clinical instructor

You should also assess the following:
Your learning style. Do you have the discipline to complete an online course? Or do you learn better in a classroom setting with an instructor and students?

Your needs as a returning RN. Would you benefit from a skills lab, where you can practice blood pressures and patient assessment? What about honing your critical thinking skills in a high-fidelity simulation learning environment? Would you feel comfortable in an independent, precepted clinical experience on a medical/surgical unit, or would you feel better with a clinical group and an instructor?

Your finances. Is the price affordable? Will you get your money’s worth from the program? Are nursing contact hours awarded? Does the course length meet your learning needs in its amount of time? What about extra costs, such as parking and child care while you are in class?

Get set…

Gather all of the information you can about the nursing refresher programs that appeal to you. Contact the refresher program director and ask your questions:

  • How many times has the refresher program been offered?
  • How many of the nurses who complete the program obtain employment?
  • Are there hospitals or agencies that don’t hire the program’s refresher nurses?
  • Will hospitals or agencies reimburse you for the program cost if you secure a nursing position?
  • What is included in the program price (food, parking, books, continuing education credits)?
  • Can you contact a nurse who has completed the program?

Make sure you are satisfied with the answers; you don’t want to invest your time and money into a program that doesn’t meet your needs.

Once you select a program, begin the application process. Expect that you will need to submit the following information:

  • Your resume
  • Valid RN license
  • Valid CPR card
  • Child abuse/criminal background clearances/federal clearances
  • Physical examination results (a TB test may be needed)
  • Verification of immunizations
  • Proof of health insurance
  • Proof of liability insurance (check your homeowner’s insurance, which may provide liability insurance for an additional fee, or your refresher program may provide coverage at a nominal cost)


You’ve been accepted into the refresher program. Congratulations! Now what?

The night before your first class, you’ll probably be filled with nervous anticipation. Will I be the nurse out of practice for the longest time? Will I be the oldest one in the class? Self-doubt may creep in, but don’t despair! You will most likely be in a class with about 12 to 20 other nurses, ranging in age from mid-30s to upper 50s. They are returning to the workforce because their children are in school or college, their husbands lost their jobs or are retired, or other reasons. Most of all, they are returning to the workforce because they miss the intimacy of patient care; they miss the reason why they became nurses. You will make new friends, and you will help each other in this new adventure.

Your refresher program may have a clinical component with a nurse preceptor or clinical instructor on a medical surgical unit. Look and dress like a professional RN. Shine your nursing school pin and wear it proudly. Wear sturdy shoes; consider support hose. Remember what it is like to practice nursing. Your level of engagement and participation with patient care is at the discretion of the hospital. Expect to be tired and exhilarated after your first clinical day; be proud of yourself! You will be amazed at how much you remember.

Take time to share your clinical and classroom experiences with your nursing colleagues and your refresher friends. How has nursing changed compared to 10 years ago? How have you changed?

At the completion of your nursing refresher course, decide your next step. Do you still want to return to the workforce? Why or why not? Are you drawn to hospital nursing practice? Would full or part-time employment be best? What about outpatient departments, clinics, or physician practice offices? The possibilities abound.

Everyone needs a nurse just like you. Enjoy your return to the workforce!

Lisa Marie Bernardo is the owner of The Pilates Centre, LLC and an adjunct instructor in the doctoral program at Carlow University School of Nursing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


Bouman K, Kruithof J. Teaching old dogs new tricks: RN ‘returnship’ program. J Nurs Staff Develop. 2004;20(4):164-169.

Burns H, Sakraida T, Englert N, Hoffmann R, Tuite P, Foley S. Returning nurses to the workforce: Developing a fast track back program. Nurs Forum. 2006;41(3):125-132.

Davidhizar R, Bartlett D. Re-entry into the registered nursing work force: We did it! J Cont Edu Nurs. 2006;37(4):185-190.

Hawley J, Foley B. Being refreshed: Evaluation of a nurse refresher course. J Cont Edu Nurs. 2004;35(2) 84-88.

White A, Roberts V, Brannan J. Returning nurses to the workforce: Developing an online refresher course. J Cont Edu Nurs. 2003;34(2):59-63.

11 Comments. Leave new

  • I stopped working in 2014 because of lung cancer. I have worked in hospice, and as a part time combination nurse/care giver since then. I am healthy now though I still receive cancer care. I really need a refresher in the clinical portion of nursing. Computers, IVs, multitasking. All the things I knew like the back of my hand have changed immensely.

  • For anyone interested in returning to Nursing, there is always a need in the area of Corrections. The majority of the employers are very thankful for those wishing to provide care in this setting

  • I retired ten years ago due to burnout from doing the wrong kind of job: Night shift agency rehabilitation/nursing home. It was like constantly being dropped from a helicopter into a war zone. Not for me. But in hospitals I did well with patients and physicians though the hospital pay was pretty bad in the ’80s and ’90s and the equipment was sometimes primitive. The work, though, was great and I stayed in Neuroscience. Wanting to be active and still knowing quite a bit I thought returning to the fray in some manner would be great. PS: I’m a 71 year old male Vietnam War veteran,

  • jackie Loury
    April 19, 2016 9:41 am

    I am interested in a Refresher Course. I am 56. Worked the last 20 years as a RN ,as a school Nurse., for 17 years.Interested in a Refresher to keep up my skills. After retirement, I want to go back to the hospital 2 days a week.

  • ahhhh…you make it sound like the perfect solution! RN’s are not being hired even after a refresher course–if you have been away from a hospital setting 2-5 years, you are deemed ‘ineligible’ and of no value to the profession. this is a nation-wide problem which must be addressed.

  • Thank you for the article. I was a nurse in the US 8 years ago, and have been residing in Moscow, Russia ever since. Nursing is very different here, so I didn’t do a day of Nsg in Russia. I have to return to the States and work for a hospital in KY. My license is valid, but I was really wondering what all I need to look for in a refresher course. Thank you so much for spelling it out for me. And I almost cried when I read: “You’d be amazed how much you do remember!” – What an encouragment!

  • I am 56 and just finished an RN Refresher Course,(online and clinical). I was very nervous and wondered if I was in over my head, but after the first clinical day in a busy surgery center, that changed. I was exhausted but very encouraged in that I really hadn’t forgotten that much after 10 years! Patients still need care, compassion and nursees with common sense: something we older nurses can provide. It’s never too late and the learning process is never complete.

  • i really believe hospital/bedside nursing is primarily for the young,strong, & energetic; i am about 10 yrs away (i hope) from retirement, and i would not do well with the hectic pace of a hospital. i do deskwork, Monday through Friday- exciting, no, but keeps a roof over my head. i exercise off duty at MY pace, those hospital nurses kill themselves with all the duties expected of them, & pressure to have excellent outcomes. it’s difficult to keep everyone happy when safety is the # 1 concern.

  • I hope you return to nursing. You sound like you would be a great addition to the profession!

  • As a retired nurse I have contemplated returning to active nursing because I too miss the patient care. This article was excellent – factual, timely, and succinct. Thank you.


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