Expert Health Articles

What is a Forensic Nurse?

With social justice issues like human trafficking, sexual assault and intimate partner violence in the media, one might ask: “What is a forensic nurse?” A forensic nurse is a registered nurse who blends the holistic care of nursing to the body, mind and spirit—to include principles from the law, medicine and science. A forensic patient is an individual who has a healthcare issue and intersects with the legal system.

A forensic nurse provides comprehensive care to victims of violence while demonstrating competency in conducting a medical forensic exam, including evaluation for evidence collection; providing effective courtroom testimony; and showing compassion and sensitivity towards survivors of violence. The medical wellbeing of a patient is the primary objective of the forensic nurse during the examination.

Forensic nurses play a vital role in both healthcare and criminal justice systems. This art of nursing is practiced within hospitals, anti-violence programs, psychiatric institutions, coroners’ and medical examiners’ offices, communities (preparing and responding to natural disasters), and/or correctional facilities. Forensic nurses work beside law enforcement, social workers, medical professionals and public health organizations to develop an anti-violence response to human acts of violence.

Forensic nurses also benefit the community. Accurate evidence collection increases prosecution, thus making for a healthier society. The message that a survivor receives when accessing forensic nursing care is that violence is a problem for the entire community, not just the victims that access the services.

Forensic nurses often enter this specialty as Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) which requires the nurse to attend a 40-hour didactic training that includes survivor symptomology, documentation, history taking skills, evidence collection, courtroom testimony and forensic photography. Forensic nurses often work on-call, above and beyond the hours of their primary nursing specialty, spending nights, holidays and weekends responding to the medical needs of friends, family members or neighbors in communities, who have been victimized by a crime.

A certification exam can be taken to be credentialed as a sexual assault nurse examiner for the adult (SANE-A) and pediatric population (SANE-P) after accruing a minimum of 300 hours in SANE-related practice. A forensic nurse may also practice as a death investigator earning certification through the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators (ABMDI). This entails at least 640 hours of death investigation experience. Some universities specialize in advanced practice nursing degrees with a focus on forensic nursing.

 According to the International Association of Forensic Nursing (IAFN), approximately 5,000 registered members of forensic nursing exist, with 263 registered in the state of Ohio. Eleven active forensic nurses serve victims of violence in Hancock and Allen County hospitals on a 24-hour on-call basis.

If you or someone you know has been victimized by a crime and needs medical care, please head to your local hospital and request a forensic nurse to receive quality medical care and forensic evidence collection. If in need of immediate guidance, crisis intervention, one-on-one support or peer support, contact these anonymous and confidential 24-hour hotlines: Ohio Sexual Violence Network (844.644.6435); Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization (866.86.BRAVO); National Sexual Assault Hotline(800.656.HOPE); National Domestic Violence Hotline (800.799.SAFE); and/or Love is Respect (866.331.9474).

Mindy Lause, RN

Blanchard Valley Health System

Emergency Department