How to Succeed at Medical-Surgical Nursing

Ah, medical-surgical nursing. Most nursing students refer to this course as “med-surg.” It is typically offered in two semesters, depending on your program, and focuses on the different body systems and disease processes, signs and symptoms testing, treatments, and nursing interventions.
Med-surg nursing comes as a challenge to most nursing students, even for those intending to become medical-surgical nurses. Some may find themselves needing to re-take the course. We’re here to help you break it down.

Medical-Surgical in a Nutshell

One of the most important keys to being successful in medical-surgical nursing is to use your time wisely. As nursing students know, it can be almost impossible to read every single word on the assigned readings, and any reading you do complete can be time consuming.
Med-surg isn’t just about memorizing lab values or vocabulary words, but rather applying concepts and making connections to information you may already know from previous courses. Professors may even put more emphasis on certain concepts they want you to focus on during your lecture, which you should take as a major hint that those concepts may appear on your exam.

Med-Surg Survival Tips

So, how do you keep your head afloat with all this information you need to learn? While you ultimately need to find what works for you, here are some hints that have helped me to survive two semesters of medical-surgical nursing:

  • Don’t read word for word. Skim the pages, read the bulleted key points, etc.
  • Form study groups with people in your class.
  • Utilize practice questions from your textbook, online, and from Hesi or websites like Evolve.
  • Use flashcards to organize your information.
  • Study a little bit every day instead of cramming everything the night before.
  • Think of questions that your professor may ask on the test (especially select-alls) as you are doing your reading.
  • On exams, always utilize your ABCs when deciding which answer is correct based on priority patient care: airway, breathing, circulation.

Remember, it is important to find out what study habits work for you in med-surg, as everyone learns and retains information differently. If you start to fall behind and your grades aren’t where you would like them to be, don’t be afraid to reach out to your professors, as they are here to help you succeed.

How to Approach Medical Surgical Questions

Medical Surgical nursing, or “med/surg”, is often the foundation of a nurse’s career and where many start to lay the initial groundwork. The reason it gets a bad rap is due to the heavy client load and arduous hours.

There are many different study tactics and skills that you can do to understand medical-surgical content, but being able to answer the questions correctly is another skill in its own. Here’s how to approach and conquer those dreaded med/surg questions, which so often stump nursing students:

Secret to medical-surgical questions

One of the important parts of learning how to answer medical-surgical questions starts with a strong foundation of understanding the pathophysiology of the disease. This includes studying the signs and symptoms, tests ordered, complications, nursing interventions and treatments for the disease/condition.
So, after you have learned all of the above mentioned information in your nursing course, you’re ready to apply the content to the questions you may see in your med/surg course. Many of the questions will be critical thinking/application type questions rather than knowledge-based. Here are some approaches you can take to answer these questions successfully:

  1.  Understand the normal and abnormal anatomy for the disease/condition in the question. For example, think to yourself, “What does the client with bronchitis look like?” Knowing what “normal” looks like will help you to distinguish what abnormal looks like.
  2.  Know the anatomy and physiology. Again, understanding what “normal” looks like for anatomy and physiology (which you should have gotten this from your Anatomy and Physiology I and II courses), will help you to apply what you know and narrow down your choices in the questions.
  3.  Understand the nursing interventions for the signs and symptoms of the disease/condition in the question. Knowing what the signs and symptoms are is a straight knowledge based question, but understanding concepts like “what should the nurse do first” or “what is the best nursing action” are critical thinking skills you will need to apply.
  4.  Think about why the client is experiencing signs and symptoms. Again, this refers back to your anatomy and physiology.  Understanding why the client is experiencing certain things will help you to see the big picture of what the question is asking.
  5. When analyzing select all questions, you never select all the options in the select all. This may seem like a given, but there are times all of the options may seem correct. As you go through each option, ask yourself “is this true or false” and base your decision on that.
  6.  Always look at the “ABC’s” for each question–Airway, Breathing, and Circulation. If the question is a priority question, the first option you would pick would be anything pertaining to the airway (respiration, administering oxygen, etc.). If airway isn’t an option, then look for the answer that focuses on breathing, then circulation.
  7.  Focus on the stem of the question and avoid the distractors instructors may throw in a question. Typically with the med math questions, they may throw in extra information that you don’t need to solve the medication math problem. It’s important to understand what exactly the question is asking you, and looking at the information only pertaining to the question asked.

Practice makes perfect

So, now that I just threw all of this information at you, don’t panic! The best thing to do to strengthen your critical thinking/application skills is to do as many practice questions as you can. Try and do application questions that provide rationales as to why you answered the question right or wrong.
The more medical-surgical questions you do, the more exposure you will have and be comfortable when you see them on the test. Take a breath, read the question, and think about what the question is answering. You’ve got this!