What Is a Nurse Practitioner?

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Nurses provide patient care in a wide variety of settings around the world. Registered nurses (RNs) can also earn an advanced degree and become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). These nurses can take on additional tasks and act as primary care professionals in many facilities.

One popular type of APRN is a nurse practitioner. A nurse practitioner has at least a master’s degree and is able to diagnose conditions, prescribe medications, and provide treatments.

Common responsibilities of nurse practitioners include:

  • gathering and recording patient medical histories
  • diagnosing medical conditions, injuries, and acute illness
  • writing prescriptions for medications
  • ordering diagnostic tests such as lab work and X-rays
  • designing treatment plans
  • performing necessary medical treatments
  • teaching patients about medical conditions and treatments

Nurse practitioners work in a variety of settings, including:

  • hospitals
  • medical offices
  • community clinics
  • schools
  • birthing centers
  • patient homes

It’s no surprise that nurse practitioner roles are some of the fastest growing in the United States. In fact, all medical careers are expected to see growth in the next decade, and nurses are predicted to see the bulk of that growth.

However, even among nursing careers, nurse practitioner roles stand out for their growth. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that by 2029, the field will grow by 45 percent. For comparison, the average job growth predicted among all jobs is 4 percent.

Nurse practitioners obtain their RNs and maintain their nursing licensure. They also need to earn at least a master’s degree in nursing.

In the future, a higher degree will likely be needed. Many of the country’s nursing associations recommend that nurse practitioners earn a doctoral degree in nursing.

You can read more about the steps to becoming a nurse practitioner below.

Education

If you’re interested in becoming a nurse practitioner, your first step will be to earn a degree that allows you to apply for RN licensure. You can choose from a diploma, associate degree in nursing (ADN), or a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN).

If you know you want to become a nurse practitioner, going for a BSN might be a smart choice. It’ll allow you to transfer more credits and can help you build the educational foundation you need to take on this role.

You’ll also need to earn an advanced degree. You can choose from a master of nursing science (MSN) or doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree. You’ll focus on a specialty in your MSN or DNP program and gain advanced knowledge.

You might be able to find bridge programs that allow you to go directly from an ADN to an MSN or BSN to DPN. These programs allow you to earn multiple degrees at once, saving you both time and money.

How long your education takes will depend on your degree path. Some general time frames include:

  • diploma RN programs: 2 years
  • ADN programs: 2 years
  • BSN programs: 4 years
  • MSN programs: 2 to 3 years
  • DNP programs: 3 to 5 years
  • ADN to MSN bridge programs: 3 years
  • BSN to DNP bridge programs: 3 to 5 years

Exams

You’ll need to take exams for your RN license and nurse practitioner license. All RNs need to take and pass the National Council Licensure Examination to gain licensure. You’ll also need to keep your RN license in good standing throughout your education and career.

Nurse practitioners need to take a certification exam in their area of specialty. The exam will focus on the knowledge, skills, and understanding you need to take on your nurse practitioner role. The details of your exam will depend on your specialty.

Licensure

You’ll need to be licensed by your state to work as a nurse practitioner. To apply, you’ll submit your exam results and proof of your education to your state’s board of nursing to earn licensure. In some states, you’ll need to apply for a separate prescriptive authority license to prescribe medications.

Your license needs to remain in good standing for you to legally work as a nurse practitioner. Each state has its own rules for maintaining a nurse practitioner license. Generally, this includes continuing education coursework and working a set number of clinical hours.

Just like doctors or surgeons, all nurse practitioners have a specialty. The specialty you choose will be the focus of your education, exams, and licensure. You’ll need at least an MSN degree to work as a nurse practitioner in any specialty. Options include:

  • Family nurse practitioner (FNP). An FNP works as a primary care professional. They offer a wider range of healthcare services to patients of all ages. This is one of the most common nurse practitioner specialties.
  • Adult nurse practitioner. Adult nurse practitioners provide primary care services to adults. This generally includes exams, education, prescriptions, and treatments.
  • Pediatric nurse practitioner. Pediatric nurse practitioners provide primary care for patients ranging from babies to teenagers. Like other primary care nurse practitioners, they conduct exams, diagnose health conditions, write prescriptions, and provide treatments.
  • Geriatric nurse practitioner. Geriatric nurse practitioners work with older adults. They may work with specific groups such as nursing home residents or people with diabetes. They provide primary care and education to patients.
  • Women’s nurse practitioner. A women’s nurse practitioner focuses on women’s health concerns. They provide comprehensive reproductive and gynecological care.
  • Neonatal nurse practitioner. Neonatal nurse practitioners work with newborns. They work in labor and delivery units and in neonatal intensive care units. They often also provide education and counseling to new parents.
  • Acute care nurse practitioner. Acute care nurse practitioners work in urgent care centers or emergency rooms to treat sudden and severe injuries or illnesses.
  • Occupational health nurse practitioner (OHNP). An OHNP treats workplace injuries and provides employee education.

Nurse practitioners are well compensated for their advanced education and expertise.

According to 2020 data from the BLS, nurse practitioners earned a median salary of $111,680 across the United States. However, your exact salary will depend on your workplace, experience, and specialty. For example, nurses who work in outpatient care centers receive a higher than average annual salary.

As for location, nurse practitioners in California earn the highest annual salary in the country, making an average of $145,970, as of 2020, according to the BLS, while nurse practitioners in Tennessee earn slightly lower salaries earning an average of $99,370, as of 2020.

Note that the BLS groups nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners together in its data, as they all coordinate patient care and may provide primary and specialty healthcare.

Nurse practitioner schedules can vary widely depending on their workplace. The hours at an outpatient care center will look very different than the hours for a nurse practitioner who visits patients in their homes.

You might be able to choose a workplace that fits your desired hours and schedules. For example, nurse practitioners who run their own primary care practices might set their own hours. Those who work at hospitals might work weekend or overnight shifts.

As with many nursing roles, you may work longer shifts for fewer days per week rather than the traditional 5-day workweek.

Nurse practitioner roles are among the fastest-growing careers in the United States. As APRNs, nurse practitioners have advanced degrees that allow them to take on additional tasks and responsibilities.

In many settings, nurse practitioners act as primary care professionals and conduct exams, diagnose conditions, prescribe medications, and provide treatments. Nurse practitioners pick specialties and focus their education and practice on those areas.

If you’re interested in a nurse practitioner career, you’ll need to earn at least an MSN degree.



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