Story at a Glance
Nurse Practitioners (NPs) are highly skilled nursing professionals who provide comprehensive care to patients with a high degree of autonomy. This article defines the profession and provides information on:
Roles and responsibilities.
Training and education.
Licensure and certification.
One of the writers for our site goes to a nurse practitioner as her regular doctor. Although the practitioner works with a licensed, board-certified medical doctor, my colleague prefers the NP. She says, “For one thing, she spends time with me. She’s not rushed and listens to what I say. If I call with a problem, she calls me back personally. She doesn’t hand it off to someone I don’t know, and who doesn’t know me.”
As I nod, she quickly adds, “Plus she fully explains what’s wrong with me, then gives me options for treatment. I feel like a real person when I see her.”
I can’t say all NPs are like this, but many of them are. My friend’s experience has been all positive for her.
What are nurse practitioners?
You may derive from my friend’s experience that Nurse Practitioners (NPs) are advanced-practice registered nurses who provide comprehensive care to patients. They focus on preventative care, but also can diagnose and treat. This includes writing prescriptions.
Make no mistake, nurse practitioners are first and foremost nurses. As the story above indicates, their interaction with patients includes patient education and holistic care. For the most part, they treat the whole person.
What makes nurse practitioners different from physician’s assistants?
Both nurse practitioners (NP) and physician’s assistants (PA) are advanced healthcare providers that can be found in many healthcare organizations. The differences between the two positions might not be immediately obvious, especially since there is overlap in their responsibilities. Most of the distinctions are found in the training and education of each specialty.
Nurse practitioners work autonomously and take initiative in their clinical decisions. Physician’s assistants do not have this level of independence and must always work under the direct supervision of a licensed, board-certified medical doctor. NPs can also perform procedures, such as suturing, something PAs cannot do.
Lastly, NPs require more education and far more clinical experience than PAs. PAs, on the other hand, can start their career with less on-the-job training and frequently without an advanced degree.
Responsibilities of nurse practitioners
Nurse practitioners may encounter many circumstances during the course of a day. But their primary responsibilities include:
- Conducting physical exams.
- Coordinating referrals.
- Diagnosing, treating, and providing ongoing management of diseases.
- Ordering lab tests and procedures.
- Performing certain procedures and minor surgeries, such as biopsies.
- Prescribing medication.
- Providing patient education and counseling supportive of healthy lifestyles.
- Taking the patient’s history.
Becoming a nurse practitioner
To become a nurse practitioner, you’ll need a Master’s of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP).
Before entering a master’s or doctoral program, you must first graduate from an accredited nursing program with a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN). At that time you’ll be eligible to take the NCLEX-RN licensing exam. You must pass this exam if you want to practice nursing.
If you have an Associate’s Degree in nursing, even if you are an RN, you will have to obtain the BSN before entering an MSN program.
The length of time it takes to obtain an MSN or DNP depends on a student’s starting point. Here are some typical timetables:
- RN (associate’s degree) – takes two years.
- RN (associate’s degree) to BSN – takes two years.
- BSN to MSN takes about two years.
- BSN to DNP takes three to four years.
- MSN to DNP takes one to two years.
Some graduate programs may require students to gain clinical experience before enrollment. The number of years they expect will vary from school to school. Other programs may allow students to gain their experience while working through the program. Either way, clinical experience is vital to becoming a nurse practitioner. It provides the variety of experiences you’ll need to be able to address the medical concerns and situations you’ll encounter.
To accommodate different needs in lifestyles, both online and classroom nurse practitioner programs are available.
Online programs allow students to work in the field while continuing their studies. It’s convenient and in some cases less expensive. If clinical experience is required, students may be placed in local hospitals. Sometimes students can gain clinical experience at their place of employment.
Blended, or hybrid programs have online components, but require you to be on ground occasionally – weekly or once or twice per semester. Travel may be local or could require you to fly to a main campus in another state.
Nurse practitioner program specialties
Once you become a nurse practitioner, you can elect to specialize in a field. Your NP program may include training in some specialties. If not, certification can be obtained through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). Some areas include:
- Acute Care
- Family Medicine
- Neonatal Care
- Women’s Health
Examination, licensure, and certification
If you are interested in becoming certified in a specialty, you may be able to do so concurrently while enrolled within an MSN or DNP program. In the alternative, you can do it as an independent study through the ANCC or other training organization. Keep in mind that not all specialties offer a certificate. If this is true in an area you are interested in, you can earn it through clinical competency. This means you gain experience while working within that specialty. Eligibility for clinical competency certifications differ from program to program, so researching requirements is recommended.
Once a specialty program is completed, you can take a certification exam. These exams verify that you have the training and experience necessary to specialize. For example, if you want to be a Family NP, you would take the Family Nurse Practitioner Exam. Upon passing, your title becomes FNP-C (Family Nurse Practitioner Certified).
Be reminded that licensure and certification are different. Certification means you are competent to practice in a chosen specialty. Licensure means you are legally permitted to practice in your state of residence. You are advised to review your state’s requirements for both certification and licensing.
Lower healthcare costs
Nurse practitioners can lower the costs associated with healthcare. Patients who use NPs as their primary healthcare providers may discover they have fewer emergency room visits and shorter hospital stays. NPs also fill the ever-growing shortage of primary care physicians. And, as you can surmise from my friend’s experience, patients may be better satisfied with the quality of care.
Becoming a nurse practitioner can give you the best of two worlds; that of a nurse and that of a medical practitioner. The years of education required are much less, which lowers the cost outlay for your education. While you can’t become an NP quickly, you can begin working as a nurse as you gain the additional training needed to become a nurse practitioner.
Other articles you may be interested in:
8 Surgical Specialties for Registered Nurses
Helping the Trauma Victim as a Trauma Nurse
Associate Degree versus a Bachelor Degree in Registered Nursing
5 Reasons Your Application Gets Rejected by Nursing Schools
For an podcast interview with a surgical nurse, click here.
If becoming a nurse practitioner has sparked your interest, you can get started today with one of two kits from The Apprentice Doctor. There’s no need to wait until you are in an official nursing program, or even in college. Either kit enables you to practice skills you’ll need in any nursing career.
The Apprentice Doctor® Suturing Course and Kit is a resource that in almost no time at all teaches you how to suture wounds. As a nurse at any level, you’ll use this skill frequently. The kit contains everything you need to get started.
The Apprentice Doctor® Phlebotomy Course and Kit is another handy resource at your fingertips. This program teaches you how to confidently perform phlebotomy procedures. Drawing blood is a skill almost all nurses perform – and they have to be very good at it to minimize discomfort for the patient. If you want to start your education being a great nurse, why not begin phlebotomy training right away?