What is a nurse practitioner?
A nurse practitioner (NP) is an advanced practice registered nurse who has completed additional training beyond a registered nurse (RN). They provide a wide range of healthcare services similar to those traditionally performed by doctors. Nurse practitioners blend clinical expertise in diagnosing and treating health conditions with an emphasis on disease prevention and health management.
As a vital part of the healthcare system, nurse practitioners often serve as primary care providers, particularly in areas with limited access to physicians. They play an important role in providing high-quality, patient-centered care, focusing on health promotion, disease prevention, and education and counseling, guiding patients to make smarter health and lifestyle choices.
Duties and responsibilities
Nurse practitioners are responsible for providing a broad range of healthcare services, including conducting physical examinations, diagnosing and treating illnesses and injuries, and interpreting lab results and X-rays. They can prescribe medications, and some can even perform minor surgeries.
Additional duties include managing patients’ overall care, and counseling them on preventive healthcare and lifestyle changes. Nurse practitioners may also order and perform diagnostic tests and procedures, and they often have a specialty area, such as family practice, women’s health, pediatrics, or geriatrics.
Nurse practitioners work in various healthcare settings, including hospitals, physicians’ offices, outpatient care centers, and nursing care facilities. They may also work in educational settings, such as universities, or serve in remote and underserved areas with fewer physicians.
The work environment can be fast-paced and stressful, given the often critical nature of their patients’ conditions. However, it can also be gratifying, especially when they see improvements in a patient’s health due to their care.
Typical work hours
The work hours of a nurse practitioner depend significantly on the setting where they offer their services. Those in hospitals or nursing homes might work nights, weekends, or holidays as medical care is needed around the clock. In contrast, nurse practitioners in clinics or private practices often work traditional business hours. Part-time opportunities also exist. Irrespective of the schedule, the role can require long hours and high levels of stress due to the critical nature of their work.
How to become a nurse practitioner
This career guide section outlines the process of becoming a nurse practitioner. The primary steps are education, experience, and licensing requirements that you must fulfill to be successful in this profession.
Step 1: Complete a bachelor’s degree in nursing
The first step to becoming a nurse practitioner is to earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). This four-year degree covers the fundamentals of nursing, including anatomy, physiology, and patient care. It also involves practical training in clinical settings.
Step 2: Obtain a registered nurse license
After obtaining a BSN, you must pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) to become a licensed Registered Nurse (RN). This test measures the competencies needed to perform safely and effectively as an entry-level nurse.
Step 3: Gain experience as a registered nurse
Before becoming a nurse practitioner, you need to accumulate practical nursing experience. It’s recommended that you spend at least two years in the field as an RN to acquire critical care experience and an understanding of patient management.
Step 4: Complete a graduate degree
The next step is to earn a Master’s or Doctoral degree in nursing from an accredited program. The specialization you choose in your graduate degree can determine the area in which you will work as a nurse practitioner, such as pediatric, family, or adult gerontological health.
Step 5: Obtain a nurse practitioner license
Once you have your graduate degree, you can become a nurse practitioner by passing a national certification exam. The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) and the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) offer these exams. You must meet specific eligibility criteria related to your graduate studies and RN experience to sit for these exams.
Step 6: Consider a specialty certification
Specialty certifications can enhance your professional standing and the range of patient care you provide. There are numerous options, including acute care, pediatrics, family practice, and geriatrics.
How much do nurse practitioners make?
Nurse practitioner salaries will vary by experience, industry, education, location, and organization size. Factors unique to this role include specialization in a particular area of health care, such as family medicine, gerontology, neonatology, and mental health.
Highest paying industries
- Outpatient Care Centers – $119,790
- Hospitals – $119,250
- Physicians’ Offices – $117,530
- Home Healthcare Services – $109,020
- Educational Services – $102,690
Highest paying states
- California – $138,660
- New York – $132,550
- Texas – $129,060
- Massachusetts – $125,510
- Pennsylvania – $121,250
Types of nurse practitioners
Below, we explore career types and areas of specialization for nurse practitioners with an overview of what each entails.
Family nurse practitioner
This specialty is one of the most common for nurse practitioners. A family nurse practitioner, or FNP, cares for patients of all ages, from infancy through old age. Their focus can range from routine physicals to illness intervention, making them the frontline medical professionals for general wellness, preventive healthcare, and managing chronic conditions.
Pediatric nurse practitioner
A specialization focused on children and adolescents, this role involves caring for patients from birth to early adulthood. In this capacity, practitioners often tackle the unique medical challenges associated with growth, developmental issues, and preventative health care.
Psychiatric nurse practitioner
If you’re interested in mental health, this specialty could be a perfect fit. Professionals in this field provide mental health services to patients, ranging from counseling to medication management for a range of mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse problems.
Adult-gerontology nurse practitioner
Should you choose this field, you can expect to focus on the unique health needs of adolescents through the elderly population. You’ll take a holistic approach, considering all aspects of the patient’s life that could affect their physical health, including management of chronic diseases, preventative health care, and acute care.
Neonatal nurse practitioner
Working in this challenging yet rewarding specialty, you would provide medical care for high-risk newborns and infants, such as managing common neonatal conditions, dealing with birth complications, and caring for critically ill infants.
Women’s health nurse practitioner
In this role, practitioners provide comprehensive healthcare to women throughout their lifespan, focusing on reproductive, gynecological, and maternal-child health issues. This could be a fulfilling specialization if you’re drawn to a career focused on women’s health.
Top skills for nurse practitioners
This career guide section outlines the skills and abilities that will help you find success as a nurse practitioner.
As advanced healthcare providers, nurse practitioners should master a variety of clinical practices like diagnosing diseases, prescribing treatment plans, and performing certain procedures. Practical experience in healthcare settings is, therefore, invaluable.
One of the primary elements of success in healthcare is effective communication. Nurse practitioners must be capable of discussing health information in a clear, concise manner, whether explaining a diagnosis to a patient, conveying test results, or coordinating with other healthcare providers.
Patient care skills
Compassion and empathy are essential qualities for nurse practitioners, as they often care for individuals during vulnerable periods in their lives. Excellent bedside manners make patients feel more comfortable, which promotes cooperation and facilitates better patient outcomes.
Critical thinking skills
Nurse practitioners are frequently faced with situations requiring swift judgment and decision-making proficiency. Critical thinking skills are necessary for assessing patients’ conditions, interpreting medical histories, and deciding on the most appropriate course of treatment.
These professionals often hold a leadership position within their healthcare team. Capabilities in team management, coordination, and delegation are necessary to maintain a smoothly functioning unit, ensuring that every member of the team fulfills their role effectively.
Knowledge of laws and ethics
A firm understanding of laws and ethics concerning patient privacy, informed consent, and other healthcare-related areas is vital. Nurse practitioners must adhere to these to provide sound, legal, and ethical healthcare services.
Career path options
If you’re a nurse practitioner, there are several paths you can follow toward higher professional development and specialization.
Diverse specializations available for you as a nurse practitioner include pediatrics, women’s health, psychiatric, geriatrics, and acute care. Catering to specific patient needs creates greater proficiency in unique skills suited for those populations. Specialization also commonly leads to career advancement opportunities and increased earning potential.
After gaining robust clinical experience, you may wish to transition to administrative work in healthcare. Such roles could include head nurse, nursing director, or even chief nursing oufficer (CNO). In these positions, your insights as a nurse practitioner can influence administrative and operational decisions, contributing to better patient care and improved healthcare practices.
Education is another potential path for career progression. Some nurse practitioners become lecturers or professors in nursing colleges, sharing their knowledge and clinical experiences with budding nursing professionals. You could also choose to become a clinical nurse educator, focusing on training newly employed nurses within healthcare facilities.
If your interest lies in research, you can consider becoming a research nurse. As a nurse practitioner, you possess the practical knowledge and frontline experience that research establishments find beneficial. A research-oriented role can provide personal satisfaction and bring about significant contributions to the nursing profession.
Similar job titles
Position trends and outlook
The evolution of the healthcare field has been significant recently, and no profession embodies this progress like the nurse practitioner. As an interdisciplinary profession, they interact with various sectors within healthcare. What sets the nurse practitioner apart is the emphasis on the direct care of patients and the bond they develop over time. The coming years might witness a substantial shift as we see an increased role for nurse practitioners in primary healthcare.
With various states in the U.S. expanding practice laws, many NPs can now establish their own clinics. This self-sustainability has led to an expanded role for nurse practitioners in rural settings, providing primary care where doctors are scarce. Technology-based healthcare tools such as telemedicine are also becoming an integral part of their practice, widening their reach and efficiency.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of nurse practitioners is projected to grow an astounding 40 percent through 2031, much faster than the average for all occupations. This growth is due to increased emphasis on preventive care and demand for healthcare services from an aging population.
Nurse practitioner career tips
Acquire an advanced degree
An essential step in becoming a nurse practitioner (NP) is earning an advanced nursing degree. Generally, prospective NPs must first obtain a Master’s Degree in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) from an accredited institution. While a master’s degree is sufficient for entry-level NP roles, a doctoral degree can open opportunities for leadership positions and higher pay scales.
Attain relevant certifications
After obtaining an advanced degree, consider getting certified in a specialty area. Certifications not only validate your skills and competence but can also give you an advantage over other candidates when applying for jobs. Several organizations offer NP certifications, including the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) and the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP).
Participate in clinical hours
The healthcare field is not just about theoretical knowledge; it’s also about practical application. As such, gaining on-the-job experience through clinical hours is a must. These hours give you first-hand experience in a clinical setting under the supervision of established professionals. This experience is invaluable when you’re looking to advance in your career.
Stay updated with the latest trends
The healthcare field evolves rapidly with advancements in technology and discoveries in patient care. Take the time to stay updated with the latest developments in your field. This might involve attending workshops, seminars, or taking part in webinars. You can also subscribe to pertinent medical and scientific journals.
Build a professional network
Networking opens doors to unadvertised opportunities and provides insights into your specialization. Attend local, regional, or national events and conferences whenever possible to meet professionals in your field.
- American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP)
- American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)
- State and local nursing associations
Engage in continuous learning
To stay competitive and updated in the healthcare industry, continuous learning is vital. In addition to traditional learning methods, consider more modern forms of learning like e-courses and online workshops. Some potential areas to explore in continuous learning might include:
- Specialization courses in areas such as pediatrics, gerontology, or acute care
- Technology courses related to healthcare applications and tools
- Leadership and management workshops
Where the jobs are
- Mayo Clinic
- Cleveland Clinic
- Johns Hopkins
- Columbia University Medical
- University of Michigan Hospitals
- New York
What level of education is required for a nurse practitioner?
Nurse practitioners have at least a master’s degree and some pursue a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree. All professionals in the field also need to be registered nurses in their state and obtain certification in their patient care specialty.
What are the duties of a nurse practitioner?
Nurse practitioner duties range from diagnosing illnesses and injuries to formulating treatment plans to prescribing medications. They can also offer patient education and counseling services, order and interpret diagnostic tests, and manage a patient’s overall health care.
What skills are necessary for this profession?
Successful practitioners have strong communication, decision-making, and interpersonal skills. They need experience in team leadership and problem-solving. They also must be compassionate with patients, have a keen eye for detail, and be able to multitask in a busy environment.
Do nurse practitioners specialize in a specific area?
Yes, practitioners often specialize in areas like family medicine, acute care, or pediatrics. Choosing a concentration usually involves a dedicated curriculum during education.
What’s the difference between a nurse practitioner and a physician?
Although practitioners and physicians provide medical care to patients, physicians generally have more advanced education and can have a broader range of specialization options. Practitioners, however, are nurse leaders capable of handling various aspects of patient care.
What employment settings are available for a nurse practitioner?
The majority of these professionals work in doctors’ offices. However, some work in hospitals, outpatient care centers, and academic institutions. Others may choose to serve in the military or work in research or consulting roles.
What’s a typical day like for a nurse practitioner?
The daily experience can vary significantly by location and specialty. However, typical tasks include providing health services, diagnosing conditions, managing treatment, counseling patients, coordinating care with other health professionals, and doing administrative work.
Are nurse practitioners in high demand?
Yes, as the healthcare industry expands and the population ages, the demand for these professionals is expected to grow. Their ability to provide a broad range of health services makes them an essential part of many healthcare teams.
Can a nurse practitioner perform surgeries?
While these health professionals cannot perform high-complexity surgeries, they can participate in minor surgery procedures under the supervision of a doctor. They can assist surgeons during operations but are not typically the primary surgeons.