What is a Nurse Practitioner?
Nurse Practitioners (NP), also referred to as Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs), are registered nurses who have obtained a graduate degree in nursing. While there are several degree pathways that lead to becoming a nurse practitioner, the minimum degree requirement is a Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN). Nurse Practitioners are unique in the healthcare industry in that they can provide a more holistic approach to health and wellness than other medical practitioners. Much like other registered nurses, NPs are often compassionate, analytical, and have great problem-solving and interpersonal relationship skills. Because of their specialized education, nurse practitioners have the authority to treat and diagnose illness, administer physical exams, and prescribe medication. Nurse practitioners also seek to educate their patients and promote healthy living alongside their treatment plans and prescriptions.
Becoming a Nurse Practitioner
There are several pathways to becoming a nurse practitioner. The minimum degree requirement is a Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN) although some nurse practitioners also pursue doctorate degrees. The first step to pursuing a career as a nurse practitioner is to complete your Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN). This degree program can take up to four years, like other bachelor’s degrees, but can be a shorter timeline if you have already obtained a different bachelor’s degree, are entering an accelerated degree program, or are a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN). In some cases, there are also programs available that allow you to work on your BSN and your MSN at the same time.
A bachelor’s degree in nursing offers both a clinical and educational approach to nursing and includes several semesters of clinical practicums in healthcare facilities, from hospitals to geriatric units and outpatient care centers. Common undergraduate coursework for nursing includes:
- Health Assessment and Promotion
- Pathological Human Processes
- Pharmacology & Therapeutic Modalities
- Leadership and Resource Management
- Health Care Systems and Policy
Graduates of BSN programs (as well as some associates and certification programs) can sit for the certification exam to become registered nurses. This exam is known as the NCLEX-RN.
Regardless of how you approach your undergraduate degree, the next step is to pursue a graduate degree and focus on an area of expertise, or a specialty. MSN programs are typically two years and include a focus on your specialty of choice as well as advanced clinical training. Although nursing requires hands-on and practical training, there are MSN courses available online. Most programs offer advanced coursework in the following topics:
- Healthcare Ethics
- Clinical Practicum
- Leadership and Policy
During an MSN program, you will also choose a specialty which will determine some of your coursework and your clinical practicums. Specialties include women’s health, adult-gerontology, acute care, pediatrics, and family medicine. For further clinical study in a specialty, nurses can pursue a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). While a Doctoral Degree is not required for becoming a nurse practitioner, it can help in the future advancement of your career.
Much like receiving a license as a registered nurse, becoming a nurse practitioner requires sitting for a certification exam. The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) and The American Association of Nurse Practitioners Certification Program (AANPCP) each offer certifications for a variety of NP specialties. Other certification boards include The Pediatric Nursing Certification Board (PNCB) and the National Certification Corporation (NCC). The correct certification exam to become a nurse practitioner is dependent upon your specialization.
To sit for the certification exam, nurses must have completed (or be within 6-months of completing) an MSN, post-graduate, or doctoral degree; have a current RN license; have completed 500 or more faculty-supervised clinical hours; have a transcript and/or proof of having completed specific courses related to their specialty.
Certified nurse practitioners must renew their certification every five years. This can be done by re-taking the certification exam or participating in certified continuing education programs. It is important to note that some states also have additional ongoing certification requirements for nurse practitioners.
Choosing a Program
Finding the right program and pathway to becoming a nurse practitioner is dependent upon your needs and educational or career background. There are online and part-time programs available so that students can work while obtaining their MSN or post-graduate degree. However, it is important to confirm the accreditation of the program you choose. In order to get the most out of your education and begin a career as a nurse practitioner, you should choose only from schools accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN).
Exploring a Career as a Nurse Practitioner
Nurse Practitioners are unique in the medical field. While they have some of the same authority in treatment and diagnosis as medical doctors, they also have the practical and interpersonal skills of a nurse. Many patients seek treatment from nurse practitioners due to their holistic approach; nurse practitioners focus on helping their patients discover more than immediate health issues by highlighting how to make healthier lifestyle choices.
Where do Nurse Practitioners Work?
Nurse practitioners find fulfilling careers in a multitude of healthcare facilities and industries. In some states, NPs may even practice independently from other healthcare providers. Some of the most common places NPs practice are in hospitals, outpatient care centers, schools, and offices of physicians or other healthcare providers. Where you choose to pursue your career as a nurse practitioner is largely dependent on your specialty. Those who specialize in family care or women’s studies may enjoy working within a private practice with other medical professionals, while other specialties such as acute care will benefit from the environment of a hospital.
The Role of the Nurse Practitioner
What makes the nurse practitioner stand out from a registered nurse is the ability and authority to diagnose and treat disease without the direction (in some cases) of a medical doctor. Also, nurse practitioners can order and interpret diagnostic tests including x-rays and lab work, as well as prescribe medication. In some states, nurse practitioners must practice under the authority of a medical doctor, while other states do not have the same requirements.
Nurse practitioners also have the freedom to focus on disease prevention and the promotion of a healthy lifestyle. They often spend more time with their patients than other healthcare professionals and work alongside their patients to discover and implement long-term health goals that go beyond the immediate treatment or need.
Salary and Career Growth
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national median salary of nurse practitioners in 2018 was $107,030. Salaries vary largely based on geographic location, specialty, and where—with regards to the facility—a nurse practitioner chooses to practice. Salaries in dense metropolitan areas tend to be higher, although rural areas in need of specialized NPs can also offer substantial salary packages.
One of the most encouraging aspects of choosing a career as a nurse practitioner is the capacity for growth within the next several years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that between 2016 and 2026, there will be a 36 percent job growth for nurse practitioners, making it one of the fastest growing careers. Now is a great time to further your nursing career and education by becoming a nurse practitioner.