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Nursing possesses a discrete body of knowledge characterized by how patients and families are cared for to restore them to optimal health and functioning. Some nursing models of practice involve a 4 step process of Assessment, Planning, Implementation, and Evaluation. This "Plan of Care" is created and carried out in collaboration with the whole health care team. It is a dynamic process that is nursing driven.

Nurses acknowledge that the nursing profession is an essential part of the society from which it has grown. The authority for the practice of nursing is based upon a social contract that delineates professional rights and responsibilities as well as mechanisms for public accountability. The American Nurses' Association (1980) has defined nursing as "the diagnosis and treatment of human responses to actual or potential health problems." Unfortunately, this definition has been disputed on political grounds by physicians who dislike nurses' use of the term "diagnosis", although nursing diagnoses are unique, bearing little resemblance to medical diagnoses.

Most American practicing nurses have a bachelor's degree or higher, although many entry-level nurses have an associate degree. Advanced practice nurses (APN's) are nurses with graduate preparation who have specialized knowledge of a particular domain of practice, such as mental health or primary care (nurse practitioners), parent-child-family care (nurse midwives and family nurse practitioners), administering of anesthesia (nurse anesthetists) and care of entire special populations, often in hospitals (clinical nurse specialists.) Nurses also work in administration, research, education, and policy-making.

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