Nurse practitioners are advanced practice registered nurses who provide care to patients throughout the lifespan, from premature newborns to the elderly.
They perform comprehensive and focused physical examinations; diagnose and treat common acute illnesses and injuries; provide immunizations; manage high blood pressure, diabetes, depression and other chronic health problems; order and interpret diagnostic tests such as X-rays and EKGs, as well as laboratory tests; prescribe medications and therapies; perform procedures; and educate and counsel patients and their families regarding healthy lifestyles and health care options.
Nurse practitioners can prescribe medications, including controlled substances, in all 50 states. In 26 states, nurse practitioners have authority to practice independently.
In addition to working in clinics, office practices, managed care organizations and hospitals, nurse practitioners deliver care in rural areas, urban community health centers, college campuses, worksite employee health centers and other locations. Nurse practitioners also work for healthcare technology companies (e.g., pharmaceutical manufacturers), perform health care research, teach in schools and universities and serve in governmental agencies (e.g., health departments, the military, etc.).
Approximately 15% of all nurse practitioners have their own private practices. There are also a number of nurse-managed health centers across the United States, in which all of the health care is directed and provided by nurse practitioners, along with other health care professionals.
Depending upon the type of practice, working schedules may be a conventional work week or may include weekends and holidays and/or being available on call after hours.
Salary Range and Outlook
As the numbers of primary care physicians decrease and the demand for health care services increases, nurse practitioners are highly recruited.
A recent national survey details what nurse practitioners can expect to earn; however, the salaries, required duties and working conditions vary among the many different practice sites and patient populations.
Nurse practitioners are registered nurses with graduate education in nursing. Most nurse practitioners have a master’s degree, which requires at least two years of full-time study beyond the bachelor’s degree in nursing. They specialize in pediatrics, adult and gerontology, family and women’s primary care, occupational health, psychiatric/mental health and acute care. Sub-specialty preparation, such as oncology, is also available.
Nurse practitioners need to be critical thinkers: they must obtain relevant information about a person’s health status from a wide variety of sources (the patient’s verbal communication, clinical examination and diagnostic tests) and use that data to independently make evidence-based decisions about when, why and how to address health care needs. They also need to be able to cope well with stress, since their work includes direct involvement with human suffering, emergencies and other pressures.
If you are considering going into this field, you should know that there is a growing national movement to require all nurse practitioners to earn a Doctor of Nursing Practice (D.N.P.) degree. This degree is called a practice doctorate and is similar to the academic credentials earned by dentists (D.D.S.), physicians (M.D./D.O.), clinical psychologists (Psy.D. or Ph.D.), clinical pharmacists (Pharm.D.) and other health care providers. D.N.P. programs require three to four years of study beyond a bachelor’s degree in nursing.
Nurse practitioner educational programs include graduate courses in health sciences (e.g., pathophysiology, pharmacology, epidemiology) and courses in the diagnosis and clinical management of health and illness. Students also complete several semesters of supervised clinical practice to demonstrate competency in providing health care. Graduates from these programs are eligible to sit for national board examinations to become certified.
The cost of earning a graduate degree can be high, but funding resources are available. In addition to grants for graduate nursing education, there are federal government education loan repayment programs for NPs who practice following graduation or become faculty members in an accredited nursing program. Also, as a benefit, many hospitals offer their nurse employees tuition reimbursement for pursuing advanced nursing degrees. Additional information about possible sources of educational funding may be found at the American Association of Colleges of Nursing.
Learn More About a Career as a Nurse Practitioner
- Take a look at the American Association of Nurse Practitioners’ Student Resource Center for a variety of information.
- American Association of Colleges of Nursing
- American Association of Nurse Practitioners
- National Association of Nurse Practitioners in Women's Health
- National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners