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The Different Types of Nurses in Canada

Whether you’re thinking about becoming a nurse or you’re already in the field and are looking to advance your career, there are many different types of nurses and roles to consider. There are even other related fields in healthcare that you could get into. With so many possibilities you might feel overwhelmed and not exactly sure which path to take.  We’ve outlined the different types of nurses below and the steps you’d need to take to become one in order to help you narrow down the best option for your career in healthcare.

Registered Nurse (RN)

RNs exist throughout Canada. These types of nurses hold a deep knowledge base in areas such as clinical practice, critical thinking, and research utilization. RNs perform a variety of clinical and administrative tasks, including assisting physicians, recording medical history, monitoring symptoms, administering medicine, and performing diagnostic tasks. RNs look after patients with more complex needs in unpredictable situations, within many different practice areas. These types of nurses are trained as generalists, with the skills and knowledge to help patients with any illness in any setting. RNs can later specialize in a number of different areas.

To become an RN, you need to:

  • Hold a four-year baccalaureate degree in nursing from a Canadian university or the international equivalent – typically a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree (BScN) or a Bachelor of Nursing degree (BN),
  • Meet the competence requirements of your province or territory’s regulatory body (in BC, for instance, nursing competencies are grouped into the categories of Professional Responsibility and Accountability, Self-Regulation, Knowledge-based Practice, Client-Focused Provision of Service, and Ethical Practice),
  • Pass the registration exam, and
  • Consent to a criminal record check.

The Canadian Nurses Association offers RNs voluntary certification in 20 nursing areas. Certification can help these types of nurses maintain high standards of care in their practice while focusing on a specific area which employers recognize and value. Thousands of RNs across the country have attained certification in different specialties that relate to patient age, health problem, diagnostic group, practice setting, type of care, or some combination of these.

Specialties consist of the following:

  • Cardiovascular Nursing
  • Community Health Nursing
  • Critical Care Nursing
  • Critical Care Pediatric Nursing
  • Emergency Nursing
  • Enterostomal Therapy Nursing
  • Gastroenterology Nursing
  • Gerontological Nursing
  • Hospice Palliative Care Nursing
  • Medical-Surgical Nursing
  • Nephrology Nursing
  • Neuroscience Nursing
  • Occupational Health Nursing
  • Oncology Nursing
  • Orthopaedic Nursing
  • PeriAnesthesia Nursing
  • Perinatal Nursing
  • Perioperative Nursing
  • Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing
  • Rehabilitation Nursing

Nurse Practitioner (NP)

NPs offer personalized, quality healthcare to their patients. They focus on teaching, counseling, and supporting the diagnostic treatment that they provide. NPs comprehensively assess patients, which includes diagnosing diseases, disorders, and conditions. They initiate treatment like healthcare management, offer therapeutic interventions, and prescribe medications. NPs also emphasize disease prevention and health management. Their tasks may include diagnosing and treating conditions, prescribing medications, and ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests. They may work with many diverse populations and focus on a particular specialty.

Though these types of nurses do not substitute physicians, their roles are complementary and they help improve healthcare access to patients. They allow physicians’ time to be freed up so they can focus on more complex health diagnoses and disease treatments.

NPs will have already been working as RNs, but they have advanced university education and are registered with a regulatory body. This is required by all Canadian provinces and territories, for public safety reasons and to support sustainable healthcare systems. These types of nurses must meet advanced requirements to register as, and call themselves, NPs. To become an NP, you need a master’s degree or advanced diploma in nursing. NPs work in many settings and within a flexible regulatory system that provides strong educational preparation along with rigorous registration requirements and practice oversight.

Different provinces and territories will classify the work of NPs in different specialties or streams. For instance, NP specialties in Ontario include primary healthcare, adult, pediatric care, and anaesthesia. In BC, there are three streams in which these types of nurses can register: family (infants to older adults), adult (adults and older adults), or pediatrics (infants to adolescents).

The biggest difference between NPs and RNs is their role in patient care, the education they had to go through (NPs need to have a masters) and their duties. RNs focus on patient-facing roles like treatments, procedures and administering medications that have been ordered by a provider (i.e. an NP, a physician, physician assistant, etc.), while NPs can prescribe those medications, give diagnoses and examine and treat.  

Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) and Registered Practical Nurse (RPN)

These types of nurses collaborate with other healthcare team members. Most work on the frontline, caring for a wide range of patients at all stages of life.

Depending on where you reside, you may be asking yourself, what’s the difference between LPNs and RPNs? Essentially, they are the same types of nurses, just with different names. LPN is used across Canada, except in Ontario. Ontario calls these types of nurses RPNs. However, their job and duties and the qualifications they need are the same.

LPNs and RPNs provide various services ranging from health pr​omotion, to acute, long-term, and palliative care. Specific duties might include communicating care plans to patients and their families, taking blood pressure readings, changing bandages, and inserting catheters. These types of nurses are best suited to patients with less complex needs in stable and predictable conditions.

Prior to starting a healthcare career, LPNs and RPNs must complete Canada’s national licensing exam. To become one of these types of nurses, you need a two-year practical nursing diploma from an accredited college. The education and practice of these types of nurses focuses on foundational competencies within the LPN or RPN scope of practice and ​standards.

Once you’ve qualified as one of these three types of nurses, depending on your province or territory and the type of nursing you plan to do, you can specialize in one or more of the following areas.

Clinical Studies Nurse

In this unique role, clinical studies nurses observe and interview patients as part of clinical studies for new medications or healthcare procedures.


Educator Nurse

Educator nurses work in hospitals, post-secondary schools, and small communities all over the place. This rewarding role has you teaching and training others on new healthcare techniques and processes.


Geriatric and Retirement Nurse

Geriatric and retirement nurses are specifically qualified to deal with the medical and emotional challenges of elderly patients, who need more healthcare on a more frequent basis than younger Canadians do.


Intensive Care Nurse

Intensive care nurses save the lives of those who are seriously ill or injured by providing hands-on care in the intensive care units of hospitals. These types of nurses may treat patients of all ages and conditions, or choose to work in specialty hospitals or units (such as a pediatric ICU). Keep in mind, with this specialty, some late night and weekend shift work is usually required.


Mental Health, Psychiatric and Addictions Nurse (the other RPN)

Many Canadians experience mental illness or suffer with drinking, gambling, or drug addictions. The types of nurses educated and trained in these areas – mental health, psychiatric, and addictions nurses – are highly skilled in mental health assessment and intervention and provide support in clinics, hospitals, and schools throughout the country. These types of nurses focus on the psychosocial, mental, or emotional health issues of patients of all ages.

Don’t get confused: In some parts of Canada, like in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, RPN doesn’t only stand for registered practical nurses but also for ‘Registered Psychiatric Nurses’ (they use the same acronym)! 


Nurse Midwife

Nurse midwives work with mothers who choose to deliver their babies at home. They help if the mom or new baby needs healthcare assistance immediately before, during, and after delivery, with their specialized training in pregnancy, labour, and postpartum issues. These types of nurses provide reproductive healthcare services, counsel expectant mothers before childbirth, deliver babies, perform exams before and after childbirth, assist with breastfeeding training, and educate new parents on caring for infants.


Occupational Health Nurse

These types of nurses operate pre-placement medicals, which you may have to take upon applying for a nursing job. Occupational health nurses also run workplace healthcare programs and help with immediate treatment in offices or other workplaces.


Oncology (Cancer) Nurse

Oncology, or cancer, nurses help patients with managing the various steps of cancer diagnosis and treatment. These types of nurses monitor patients’ conditions, administer treatments like chemotherapy, and support patients and their families through the cancer diagnosis and treatment process.


Palliative Care Nurse

Palliative care nurses help people needing healthcare in their final stages of life. These types of nurses ensure patients suffer less and maintain a certain quality of life in their final days.

Travel Nurse

These types of nurses take on temporary assignments in different domestic or international locations. They perform many of the tasks that typical RNs do, and they’re usually employed by an agency that helps healthcare facilities manage their staffing.

Still can’t decide on a specialty? If you’re looking for somewhere to get started, consider working as a personal care provider. These types of healthcare workers provide care in either an institutional setting, such as a nursing home or hospital, or in a private home. 

Many different names are used to describe this discipline or occupation in Canada. Here’s a list of these, along with the provinces and territories that use them:

    • Continuing Care Assistant (CCA) – Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan
    • Health Care Aide – Alberta, Manitoba
    • Health Care Assistant (HCA) – British Columbia, Yukon
    • Home Care Assistant – Quebec
    • Home Support Worker (HSW) – Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, PEI
    • Personal Care Attendant (PCA) – New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador
    • Personal Care Worker (PCW) – Nova Scotia
    • Personal Support Worker (PSW) – New Brunswick, Ontario, Northwest Territories, Nunavut
    • Residential Care Worker (RCW) – PEI
    • Nursing Assistan
    • Nurses’ Aide

Personal care providers look after patients in their own homes or in a long-term care facility, by meeting their supportive, physical, and psychosocial needs. These types of healthcare professionals provide personal assistance with activities of daily living, which may include tasks such as personal care, housekeeping, child care, meal preparation, socialization, and companionship. In all cases, the goal is to improve the client’s quality of life and support their independent living to function in society.

Just as the names of personal care providers vary across the country, so do their scope of work and educational requirements. Personal care providers are not regulated, as RNs and other nurses are, and because of this, each province and territory sets its own policies, practices, and educational requirements. There’s no officially recognized certification or credential. However, various schools across Canada offer personal care provider courses and certificates. In order to work in Canada in this healthcare field, you must have no criminal record, and have been immunized to communicable diseases and screened for tuberculosis.

Take Away

As you can see, there are so many options in the field of nursing and personal care. You can take your healthcare career in so many directions, with something new to learn on a regular basis. Whether you’re looking into post-secondary education and starting an exciting new career or you’re a generalist and looking to change directions and specialize in a certain area, there’s something for everyone.