What is a Nurse Practitioner?

What is a Nurse Practitioner?

What is a Nurse PractitionerNursing is a noble profession with a long and illustrious history of serving humanity. Today, working in medicine as a nurse provides a versatile career offering, personal satisfaction, and multiple opportunities for continued advancement. One of those advanced professions is that of the nurse practitioner (NP).

In an Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) position, nurse practitioners have more responsibility and additional educational requirements than most other nursing professions. However, that extra work is rewarded with a higher salary.

If becoming a nurse practitioner sounds like something you would enjoy, read on to learn more about this career option.

What is a Nurse Practitioner?

Merriam Webster Dictionary defines a nurse practitioner as, “a registered nurse who is qualified through advanced training to assume some of the duties and responsibilities formerly assumed only by a physician.” Simply put, they are nurses who are qualified to provide treatment without the direct supervision of a doctor. Yet that fails to convey all that these resolute professionals do.

What does a Nurse Practitioner do?

An NP has more authority than a registered nurse (RN). In fact, in at least 20 states, nurse practitioners are given full practice authority. This means that they can treat patients without the supervision of a doctor. In these instances, like a fully licensed physician, they can independently:

  • Examine patients
  • Prescribe medication
  • Diagnose illnesses and diseases
  • Provide treatment for a disease, illness, or injury

In the remaining states, nurse practitioners are still able to do these activities. However, they cannot act with complete independence. These NPs need to have a medical doctor sign off on certain patient care decisions.

Why is a Nurse Practitioner so Important?

As doctors and nurses become increasingly overworked and hospitals are drastically understaffed by both, the position of nurse practitioner has become vital to the effective operation of medical teams across the country. Their time spent as working nurses provides a unique approach to patient care. Moreover, their advanced education qualifies them to take on duties that would generally fall to physicians, freeing those doctors up for other patients.

The Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) is a non-profit non-partisan organization that provides independent research, facts, and analysis of health care policy. Based on their reports, nurse practitioners provide at least 80 percent of primary care physician services in the United States today.

How to Become a Nurse Practitioner

To become a nurse practitioner, you need to first become a practicing RN. Assuming you are starting from that point, the next steps you need to take to become an NP are detailed below.

NP Education Requirements and Training

To become an RN, you do not have to complete a Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing (BSN) program. You can take the NCLEX-RN licensure test with just an Associate of Science degree in Nursing (ASN or ADN). However, to advance your career to that of a nurse practitioner you will need to complete a BSN program first.

Some institutions offer programs that allow working RNs with their ADN to enter special bridge programs that help them to obtain their advanced nursing degree. These pathways are often called RN-to-MSN or ADN-to-MSN programs. If you already hold your BSN and your RN license is in good standing, you can enroll directly in an accredited Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program.

The MSN program is intensive and takes a minimum of two years to complete. In addition to a BSN and RN licensure, most programs have a minimum GPA, GRE score, and maybe even clinical experience prerequisites.

Course work commonly covers a number of topics including:

  • Advanced pharmacology
  • Theory and Practice within your specialization
  • Advanced biochemistry
  • Health care policy
  • Health care ethics
  • Management
  • Advanced practice nursing

For those who hold a bachelor’s degree in a field other than nursing, many schools offer an entry-level MSN program. These programs generally take three years to finish and are broken down as follows:

  • Year One: Students complete entry-level coursework including clinical rotations
  • Year Two: Advanced master’s level coursework and clinical training
  • Year Three: Advanced master’s level coursework and preparation for the National Council Licensure Examination for registered nursing (NCLEX-RN).

Since one of the primary prerequisites for any MSN program is an active RN license in good standing, it is understood that many students will be working nurses. With that in mind, MSN programs cater to students of all types with several offering online components. In fact, some schools provide their MSN programs entirely online.

Once you have completed the MSN program, you will be ready to sit for the advanced practice nursing licensure exam for your state. The exact testing and certification needed varies from state to state.

The NP Career Outlook

People will always need health care, and nurses are an integral part of it. Nursing has always been a stable industry and in recent years has seen a rise in demand for more qualified registered nursing professionals. As a nurse practitioner, the stability and growth potential are even greater than that for other nursing professions.

Due to factors like an aging population and the emphasis of preventative care, the need for primary care is expected to continue to rise into the next decade and beyond. As the need outgrows the available doctors, qualified nurse practitioners become increasingly more important to the health care landscape. Without more, there may end up being a shortage of highly skilled medical professionals available.

The United States Department of Labor’s (USDOL) Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH) indicates that the field of NPs is expected to grow by 36 percent from 2016 to 2026. This rate of growth is much faster than the growth of other industries and even eclipses the growth of other advanced nursing professions.

Nurse Practitioner Salary & Employment Opportunities

In addition to the bright career outlook, the salary for nurse practitioners is an attractive feature. NPs earn more than RNs by roughly $30,000 annually based on their median salaries in 2016.

According to the BLS, the average annual wage for nurse practitioners in May of 2018 was $131,710. The lowest ten percent of NPs earned roughly $80,670 with the highest 10 percent earning around $182,750. Differences can arise depending on the environment in which you work.

Those that work in state-owned, local and private hospitals make slightly more than those who are employed by outpatient care centers or in the offices of physicians and other health practitioners. The lowest-paid NPs often work in state-owned, local, and private educational service areas.

Regardless of where they are employed, high-paying opportunities abound for nurse practitioners. Moreover, adding additional specializations after becoming an NP can drive your salary up even higher and invite new career opportunities.

Top 5 Specialties

From the generalized title of nurse practitioner, many professionals segue into specialized roles. These often have additional educational requirements that can be completed in conjunction with your NP studies or done afterward. Below are the five most common nurse practitioner specialties.

General Nurse Practitioner

This basic title is the most populous group of nurse practitioners in the country. General nurse practitioners do not pursue a specialty but rather focus on the basic duties much as a general practitioner does. These universal NPs often work in hospitals, primary care offices, and urgent care centers. According to the BLS, the average wage for a general nurse practitioner in 2014 was $97,990.

Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists

One of the highest paying nursing specialties, certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNA) are responsible for the highly specialized skill of administering anesthesia to patients. These duties require additional training and licensure from the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists (AANA). According to PayScale, CRNAs earned a median salary of $146,212 in 2019.

Gerontological Nurse Practitioner

With Baby Boomers rapidly aging into an elderly population, Certified Gerontological Nurse Practitioners (CGNP) are in high demand. These specialized nurse practitioners provide health care to the elderly which requires training and understanding of the special set of challenges faced by them. The OOH estimated the median annual salary for these specialized NPs to be around $95,000 in 2014.

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner

Many do not realize that Psychiatry is the medical branch of Psychology and thus is a field dominated by doctors and nurses. A Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner (PNP)—also known as a Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (MHNP)—serves many of the same functions that a psychiatrist would. This includes seeing patients, diagnosing mental illness, and prescribing medications. Based on information from PayScale, this specialty earns a median salary of $102,629.

Family Nurse Practitioner

While the duties of a Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) are quite similar to those of a general nurse practitioner, you must earn an additional certification to become an FNP. Those who do earn the FNP certification generally work in hospitals, clinics, and medical offices and earn an average of $92,540 annually according to PayScale.


Anyone looking to take the leap into a career as a nurse practitioner would be well advised to make use of any information and resources that are available. Various national professional nursing associations offer such resources and info. For easier access, there are some frequently asked questions about the career and role of the nurse practitioner below for your consideration.

Nurse Practitioner FAQs

The most common questions about being a nurse practitioner have already been addressed above:

  • What does a nurse practitioner do?
  • How do you become a nurse practitioner?
  • What is the outlook for nurse practitioner jobs?
  • How much does a nurse practitioner make?
  • What are some specialties of nurse practitioners?

However, there are still a few commonly asked questions left. A few of those can be found below.

Where do NPs practice?

Nurse practitioners practice in a wide variety of settings both as general nurse practitioners and within their various specializations. Anywhere that health care services are provided for groups or individuals can make use of these versatile health care professionals. Among the specific places that nurse practitioners are employed are:

  • Employee health services
  • Health maintenance organizations (HMOs)
  • Home health care agencies
  • Hospitals
  • Long term care facilities
  • NP-managed health centers
  • Prisons and other correctional institutions
  • Private offices
  • Psychiatric facilities
  • School and college health services

In addition, some nurse practitioners choose to go into education. These professionals use their vast educations and experience to teach the next generation of nurses and nurse practitioners.

How cost-effective are nurse practitioners?

Nurse practitioners are highly cost-effective for both their patients and the businesses in which an NP may work. They often perform the same duties as a primary care physician at a fraction of the cost. In fact, one study compared the costs of care between nurse practitioners and primary care physicians for the same problems and found that the care given by the NP cost an average of 20 percent less than that of physicians.

How can NPs help with access to care?

Everybody deserves to have access to high-quality cost-effective health care. Moreover, people should have the right to choose the health care provider that they want.

Numerous studies have concluded that nurse practitioners perform as well as physicians in their specialty area of practice, patient outcomes, management of specific diseases, and patient diagnosis. Moreover, those studies indicate that nurse practitioners are more cost-effective than physicians in many of these areas. They have and will continue to improve accessibility to and affordability of health care. They consistently offer high-quality cost-effective services and should be active partners in health care.

Helpful Organizations, Societies & Agencies

All of these organizations share advice, tools, and news within the nursing industry. They can help you choose the right programs of study as well as provide info on accreditation and support services for working nurses looking to advance their careers.

These groups include:

  • American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP): A group of individuals and organizations involved in the nurse practitioner field who are working to improve patient care and advance nurse practitioner practice.
  • American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN): The world’s largest specialty nursing organization, this is a nonprofit association that offers professional and personal support to nurses in this field to promote better patient care.
  • American Nurse Credentialing Center (ANCC): A subsidiary of the American Nurses Association (ANA), its internationally renowned credentialing programs certify and recognize individual nurses in specialty practice areas.

Nurse Practitioner Scholarship

Take a look at our scholarship for those wishing to pursue the career of a nurse practitioner.

List of Nurse Practitioner Programs

Take a look here for a list of the Top 50 Nurse Practitioner Programs.

What now?

The role of the nurse practitioner continues to grow in the health care industry. As it does, so does the demand for highly qualified professionals. As a lucrative career option with a high rate of personal satisfaction, becoming a nurse practitioner may be the career choice that you are seeking. Remember, a journey begins with a single footstep. Contact us today if you have any questions about what your next step should be!

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