Maybe you have always known that you wanted to be a nurse, but you’re having some trouble deciding what field of nursing you want to go into. This is understandable since each type of nursing has its pros and cons.

Two areas of nursing that have a lot of overlap, but still remain distinct, are ER and OR nursing.

You might be thinking that the emergency room would be a great place for you, but then again, the operating room sounds tempting, too.

To assist you in your decision, here is a breakdown of the primary differences between ER and OR nursing, as well as some similarities between the two.

Getting a more in-depth understanding of each may help you in determining which career path you’d like to venture down.

So, what is the difference between ER vs. OR nursing? The main differences between ER and OR nursing revolve around the number of patients you’ll see on a given day and how predictable your workflow is going to be on a regular basis.

One Patient Versus Multiple Patients

Think about what you want your typical nursing day to look like. Are you more comfortable with seeing a variety of patients, or do you prefer to see just a couple of people a day?

This can help you determine what kind of setting would be best for you, ER or OR. In the emergency department, you are exposed to more people on any given day, and they come in with a wide range of illnesses and injuries.

This can be great because you’ll be able to work on your patient care skills and interact more with these individuals. If that sounds like it could get tiresome after a while, then perhaps the OR is where you will shine.

There, you will see a set number of people per day, and you will have the predictability of knowing which conditions they’re dealing with.

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Communication Styles

This refers more to how people communicate in the ER and the OR.

If you are working in the emergency room, then you have more autonomy, meaning you are spending more one-on-one time with the patients and assessing their condition.

You have more of a say in what kind of treatment they need, which can be exciting and a great learning opportunity.

On the other hand, if you have questions for the doctor, you need to go on a hunt for them or page them, and this can slow things down.

When you are in the operating room, the doctor is already right there with you, so if you have any questions, they can be answered promptly.

This can make communication a lot smoother, which adds more of a flow to your shift and doesn’t leave as many questions hanging in the air.


Predictability is a big one for people, and it will play an important role in determining which setting is best for you.

The emergency room is full of unpredictability, and you will start each shift wondering what you’ll see that day. Any number of people could come into the ER, and some days will be busier than others.

If you like the thrill of not knowing what’s coming up next, then the ER is definitely a place where you’ll excel. Some nurses find it exhilarating to work in such a fast-paced environment where no two shifts are the same.

Then, there are nurses who prefer to have an even flow of work each day. Working in the operating room can grant you that more stable, predictable workflow.

Typically, you will know which patients you are treating that day, and you will be able to look at their medical history ahead of time and understand the procedure that the surgeon will be performing.

It will then be your job to ensure that everything is clean and sterile and set in place for the operation.

You’ll be taking care that everyone is where they’re supposed to be, and things are happening routinely.

This more controlled setting is just right for some people, while other nurses prefer a fast-paced shift that brings new challenges each day.

Skills Development

All registered nurses continue to develop their skills while they’re on the job, so it’s not a matter of which setting – the ER or the OR – will teach you more.

It’s just different skills sets that each environment focuses on. For instance, the emergency room deals a lot more with patient care, so if you enjoy assessing individuals, triaging them, and regularly checking on their condition, then this is the place for you.

If you’re not too passionate about patient care, then the OR is probably a safer bet because most of your time with the patient will be when they’re unconscious.

That’s not to say that you won’t develop skills in the operating room. You will learn how to administer certain medications, control bleeding during surgery, step in when complications arise, and suture incisions.

The workload is more task oriented rather than people oriented.

As an emergency room nurse, you get more practice with patient assessment and IV skills. You also get more exposure to a broader range of acute illnesses and medical conditions.

Over time, you can become quite proficient in many different areas, as you’re getting so much variety each day.

Similarities Between OR and ER Nursing

It may sound like ER and OR nursing are on the opposite ends of the spectrum, but they do have overlapping qualities.

Both specialties require similar skills, such as critical thinking and problem-solving, effective communication, and the ability to stay calm under pressure.

People skills will also be important in these roles, although ER nurses speak more with patients while OR nurses discuss more with their colleagues.

Both jobs entail long shifts and might require some on-call shifts from time to time.

The same registered nursing skills and education are required for both jobs, although as you stay with one or the other, your skill set will develop differently. 

Moreover, both ER and OR nursing can lead to future career growth, depending on what you want to do.

If you’d like to work in the ICU one day, then ER nursing can be great for that. If you enjoy the environment of the operating room and prefer to continue working with surgeons, then stick to the OR.

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Final Thoughts

If you’re wanting to learn more about ER nursing, check out our articles on ER nursing. If operating room nursing is more of your thing than check out our articles on OR nursing.

Please share the article and let us know what your thoughts are below in the comments section.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some FAQs related to operating room nursing versus emergency room nursing.

  1. How much do ER nurses make?

    Average ER nurse pay will range from $32.08 per hour to $45.85 per hour depending on the state.

  2. Is ER nursing stressful?

    ER nursing is one of the more stressful nursing jobs. It requires nurses to be able to think on their feet quickly because they deal with acutely ill patients and in some situations seconds makes a difference in the patient outcome.

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