Forensic Nursing: Part 2. Inside Forensic Nursing

Laura A. Stokowski, RN, MS


Medscape Nurses 

In This Article

Forensic nursing may well be the fastest growing nursing specialty in the world, generating interest among both practicing and prospective nurses.[1] A field with many subspecialties, forensic nursing has already spawned new roles and careers for many nursing professionals with an interest in the law. Educational opportunities in forensic nursing at many levels -- certificate, Master's degree, doctoral, or nurse practitioner -- are also on the rise.

This good news for nurses is tempered by irony because the need for more forensic nurses stems from an epidemic of global poverty, violence, and crime.[2] The zone where healthcare needs intersect with the law is expanding, and forensic nurses have stepped in to become leaders in the healthcare response to violence.

The Blending of Nursing and Forensic Science

Long before holding the designation of forensic nurse, nurses provided care to the victims and perpetrators of violence. History reveals that in the 14th century, midwives performed gynecologic examinations for evidence of pregnancy or virtue, and then testified before the King's court.[3] Fast forward to 1984, when forensic nursing trailblazer Virginia Lynch conceived a discipline based on forensic nursing science, to formally educate nurses to provide the services they were already expected to provide. As the first nurse (and first woman) death scene investigator in a rural Texas jurisdiction, Lynch quickly realized that "every nurse I knew needed to be taught the things I was learning." Like Lynch, most early forensic nurses had to forge their own roles and educational experiences. In 1992, the newly established International Association of Forensic Nurses brought forensic nurses together under the leadership of founding President Virginia Lynch.

An early emphasis on the care and assessment of sexual assault victims rapidly evolved to include almost every healthcare issue that had legal implications. Forensic nurses do not replace other forensic professionals, but instead bring a unique nursing perspective to the multidisciplinary forensic team. Forensic nurses blend biomedical knowledge and critical thinking skills with their understanding of the principles of law and human behavior.[4] Forensic nurses recognize and meet physiological needs, while acknowledging and addressing psychological trauma and the priority of legal concerns.

Forensic nurses serve both the living and the dead -- those who are victims, suspects, survivors, and those who are left behind. Their expertise combines nursing science, forensic science, and criminal justice. Found in both traditional and nontraditional roles and practice settings, forensic nurses work in various locales including emergency departments, mental health settings, correctional facilities, and coroners' offices. Forensic nurses may collect evidence used by law enforcement or medical examiners, conduct death investigations, or provide crisis intervention for the victims and families of violence. Forensic nurses also know how to present themselves in court and provide expert testimony as a fact witnesses or expert witnesses.


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