What Is a Nurse Practitioner?
Nurse practitioners (NPs) are advanced practice registered nurses who provide care independently and alongside physicians. They enjoy more responsibilities than most other nurses and can often prescribe medications, order medical tests, provide specialty care, and establish private practices. NPs require a master's degree and state licensure to practice.
What Does a Nurse Practitioner Do?
A nurse practitioner's responsibilities depend largely on the laws and regulations in their state, but some common NP duties are listed below.
- Assess patients and diagnose health problems
- Order and evaluate test results, including X-rays, EKGs, and lab work
- Treat acute and chronic conditions, such as injuries, infections, and cardiovascular diseases
- Advise patients on how to achieve a healthier lifestyle
- Unlike RNs, an NP can prescribe medications in some states
Why Should You Become a Nurse Practitioner?
RNs looking for increased pay, more responsibility, and greater opportunities for specialization should strongly consider attending an online NP program. The U.S. government projects above-average employment growth for nurse practitioners in the coming years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), positions for NPs are projected to increase by 36% between 2016 and 2026, leading to an additional 56,100 positions. By comparison, the total growth rate for all occupations in the U.S. is around 7%.
How to Become a Nurse Practitioner
Possess a High School Diploma
Earning a high school diploma is the first step in the process; without a diploma, prospective NPs cannot earn a degree in nursing.
Earn a Degree in Nursing
NPs must hold a degree in nursing before pursuing nurse practitioner schooling. Nurse practitioner programs require a solid background in nursing, which applicants demonstrate through education and experience. Most online NP programs require a bachelor's degree in nursing, although some accept associate degrees or nursing diplomas. The degree must be from an accredited institution.
Become a Registered Nurse
Most nurse practitioner programs require several years of experience as a registered nurse. To become a registered nurse, candidates must meet educational requirements and demonstrate experience. Nurses need to complete a certain number of clinical hours to receive a state license, although the exact requirements vary by state. RNs must also pass an exam known as the NCLEX. The exam tests a nurse's ability to provide safe and effective care, promote healthy behaviors, and practice infection control procedures. Nurses must also understand pharmacological therapies.
Earn a Master's Degree
Registered nurses who meet certain educational and experience requirements can enroll in a nurse practitioner master's program to become an NP. RNs can also earn a doctor of nursing practice instead of a master's degree. At this stage, students can choose a specialty, such as family nurse practitioner. Online programs have the same requirements as in-person degrees, and graduates from online NP programs must complete the same licensing requirements. Prospective nurse practitioner programs should hold accreditation from the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP).
Take the National Certification Test
After earning a graduate NP degree, nurse practitioners must take the National Certification Test, which is offered by the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board (AANPCB). All states recognize this certification, as do most private insurance companies, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Veterans Administration. This certification meets the requirements for licensure in most states. AANPCB offers certifications like family nurse practitioner (FNP), adult-gerontology primary care nurse, and emergency nurse practitioner. Candidates pursuing each credential must pass an examination. The FNP examination tests clinical knowledge of pediatric, adolescent, adult, and elderly patients, along with prenatal care. The certification exams contain 150 multiple-choice questions. The computer-based testing format is offered at testing centers across the country. AANPCB limits candidates to two testing attempts in each calendar year. Candidates who fail the test must complete a minimum of 15 hours of continuing education in their areas of weakness. NPs can register online to take the examination or they may submit a paper application. The exam costs $240 for AANP members and $315 for nonmembers.
Maintain and Renew Certification
After earning AANPCB certification, NPs must maintain and renew their certification every five years. The renewal process ensures that NPs possess current information and knowledge in their field. To renew, NPs must demonstrate at least 1,000 clinical practice hours in an NP role and 100 contact hours of advanced continuing education during the previous five-year period. They may also retake the examination.
Factors to Consider When Choosing a Nurse Practitioner Program
As you look for nurse practitioner programs online, carefully research each school to determine if it best fits your academic preferences and career goals. In the following sections, you can discover more about some key factors to consider when comparing NP programs.
Aspiring nurse practitioners should only earn an NP degree from a properly accredited program. Accredited schools undergo regular evaluations by independent organizations to ensure they provide a high-quality education. Additionally, the federal government and many private organizations only offer scholarships and grants to students attending accredited institutions. State licensing boards also require nurse practitioners to earn their graduate degree from an accredited program.
Higher education institutions in the U.S. may hold regional or national accreditation. Regional accreditation usually applies to traditional colleges and universities, while national accreditation typically applies to vocational and technical schools.
In addition, a few organizations are responsible for vetting and accrediting nursing programs in the United States. Prospective NP students should look out for programs that hold accreditation from the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing, Inc.
To earn a nurse practitioner degree, applicants must first meet admission requirements, including holding an active RN license. The state where a nurse plans to complete their clinical hours often issues this license.
Many programs require students to hold a bachelor's degree in nursing. However, some nurse practitioner programs admit RNs who do not hold a bachelor's degree (or who possess a bachelor's in a non-nursing field). Online NP programs also expect a strong academic background from prospective students. For example, many set a minimum 3.0 GPA for unrestricted admission.
Benefits of Online Learning
Aspiring nurse practitioners should consider earning their degree online; distance programs come with many benefits. Online programs generally offer more flexibility than on-campus NP programs. Learners who attend asynchronous online programs can complete readings and assignments at their convenience, provided they meet course deadlines.
This flexibility lets practicing RNs earn an advanced degree while continuing to work full time. Plus, many online programs feature accelerated or self-paced formats that let students earn a master's degree more quickly than they would on campus. Web-based programs may also offer financial benefits, allowing distance learners to avoid costs related to things like rent or transportation.
What to Expect From a Nurse Practitioner Program
Nurse practitioner programs offer different concentrations, degree completion times, curricula, and internship options. Take time to find programs that meet your criteria.
Nurse Practitioner Concentrations
Students planning to become an NP can choose from many concentrations, which lead to different careers. Concentrations focus on a specific career path. The table below shows the average annual salaries and typical responsibilities for a variety of NP specializations.
|Family Practice||$95,000||Family NPs work with patients of all ages, from prenatal care through end of life care. As primary care providers, FNPs diagnose acute and chronic conditions, create treatment plans, and provide wellness care for multiple stages of life. Online family nurse practitioner programs prepare graduates for a career as an FNP.|
|Psychiatric||$104,000||NPs specializing in psychiatric mental health work with patients and families to determine their mental health needs. Mental health NPs may also work with groups and communities. Nurse practitioners in this specialty develop and implement care plans.|
|Pediatrics||$95,000||Pediatric nurse practitioners provide medical care to children under the age of 18. They may work in hospitals, clinics, and pediatricians' offices. Pediatric NPs assess symptoms, perform check ups, administer medication, and communicate with family members about a child's condition.|
|Geriatrics||$98,000||These nurse practitioners treat adult patients, including the elderly. Many work in private practice, treating acute and chronic ailments and providing wellness plans and maintenance care. Nurses may specialize in palliative care, diabetes, cancer, or other fields.|
|Acute Care||$98,000||Acute care NPs focus on hospital-based care. They work with patients of all ages to assess and treat those who present acute health needs. Acute care NPs may also treat chronic conditions.|
Nurse practitioner programs usually take 2-4 years to complete, depending on the program and degree. A program's structure and its requirements play a central role in determining the degree length. Different online NP programs set varying clinical hour requirements, and some may offer accelerated formats for experienced nurses. Programs may also incorporate cohort learning, which is less flexible and may take longer to complete. Others use self-paced learning, which allows students to complete classwork at their own speed.
Nurse practitioner programs each set their own curriculum based on a program's emphasis and strengths. However, many incorporate classes in advanced health assessment, primary care for different groups, and classes on evidence-based practices. Many online courses require clinical hours, which online students can arrange locally. The sample classes listed below are common among online NP programs.
- Advanced Health Assessment Through this course, future NPs learn to perform physical examinations on patients of all ages. They build communication, diagnostic reasoning, and clinical decision making skills that they can use to assess patients and recommend treatments.
- Advanced Nutrition Nurses planning to become family nurse practitioners often build advanced knowledge in nutrition. They explore nutrition's role in preventing disease and living a generally healthy life.
- Advanced Pathophysiology This course explores how various diseases affect normal biological functions. Through an understanding of pathophysiology, nursing graduates can develop treatments for renal, neurologic, gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, and other diseases.
- Healthcare Policy and Advocacy In this class, nursing students explore healthcare reform and its effect on nursing practice, healthcare delivery systems, and overall population health. Students learn about advocacy strategies that can improve healthcare delivery and practice.
- Advanced Pharmacology In pharmacology courses, nursing students learn about common medications and the fundamental concepts of drug therapy. They may also study the laws and regulations that apply to prescribing drugs.
What Can You Do with an Online Nurse Practitioner Degree?
Certified nurse practitioners provide patient-centered healthcare, including primary care. Much of their work involves conducting health assessments, performing diagnostic testing, and devising treatment plans for patients of all ages. NPs practice in a variety of settings and earn above-average wages in their field; according to the BLS, many earn over $100,000 a year,.
NPs may specialize in one of several areas, such as family nurse practitioner or emergency nurse practitioner. They work in multiple healthcare settings, including at private practices, health maintenance organizations, hospitals, health departments, and birthing centers. NPs also provide care to underserved populations in rural areas and inner-city settings.
Entry-level NPs earn an average annual salary of $88,000. By later in their careers, many nurse practitioners earn over $100,000. NP salaries also vary by employer, with ambulatory care NPs earning relatively high wages. However, regardless of their professional setting, nurse practitioners command some of the highest salaries in their field. The tables below show nurse practitioner salaries by experience and employer. Nursing.org provides even more information on this subject.
Nurse Practitioner Salary by Hospital Setting
|Hospital Setting||Average Salary||Description|
|Physician's Office/Private Practice||$94,000||Nurse practitioners often work in doctors' offices and may establish their own private practice. NPs in private practice must care for patients while also running their own business.|
|General Hospital||$102,000||These facilities care for patients with a variety of conditions, especially acute and short-term ailments. NPs in hospitals work with physicians and nurses to diagnose conditions and provide care.|
|Ambulatory Care/Surgery Center||$104,000||These facilities, which include urgent care clinics, offer same-day treatment for minor injuries and illnesses. In outpatient care centers, NPs work with nurses, doctors, and surgeons to chart medical data, evaluate patients, and offer care.|
|Community/Home Health||$100,000||Professionals in this specialty care for patients — often the elderly and disabled — in their homes. They may make many home visits each day, seeing patients for initial appointments and follow ups.|
|Extended Care/Nursing Home||$98,000||NPs in this field may work in assisted living facilities, nursing homes, and long-term care facilities. These facilities house the elderly and provide medical care. NPs may treat diseases like dementia and Alzheimers.|
Paying For Your Online Nurse Practitioner Program
Cost is one of the most important factors to consider when choosing between online nurse practitioner programs. Aside from tuition, students should plan for other costs, like expenses related to transportation, textbooks, and fees.
Thankfully, nursing students enjoy many funding opportunities to help them pay for a master's degree. All prospective nursing students should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to see if they qualify for government-sponsored scholarships, grants, or other opportunities. Many professional associations and healthcare institutions encourage nurses to earn a graduate degree by offering scholarships and grants. In the following section, you can learn about a few funding opportunities for aspiring NPs.
Scholarships for NP Students
Nurse Corps Scholarship Program
Who Can Apply: The National Health Service Corps offers this scholarship, which recipients can apply toward tuition, fees, and other college-related costs. In exchange for funding, students must work at a healthcare facility with a critical shortage of nurses. Candidates must be enrolled at an accredited nursing program at any educational level.
American Association of Nurse Practitioners Scholarships
Who Can Apply: AANP offers opportunities to nurses earning their master's, DNP, or Ph.D. in nursing. Applicants must be licensed registered nurses. They must also provide a copy of their NP program of study, official transcripts, two professional references, and a resume.
AfterCollege/AACN Scholarship Fund
Who Can Apply: AfterCollege — a career networking site — jointly offers this scholarship with the American Association of Colleges of Nursing. Applicants must pursue a bachelor's, master's, or doctoral degree in nursing and be enrolled at an AACN member institution.
Tylenol® Future Care Scholarship
Who Can Apply: Graduate students and college students planning to enroll in graduate school may apply for this scholarship. Students must pursue a degree that will let them actively treat patients and have at least one year of school left. Applicants are judged based on their grades, community involvement, and an essay.
Amount: Graduate students and college students planning to enroll in graduate school may apply for this scholarship. Students must pursue a degree that will let them actively treat patients and have at least one year of school left. Applicants are judged based on their grades, community involvement, and an essay.
Nurse Practitioner Healthcare Foundation/Procter & Gamble Endowed Scholarship in Community Service
Who Can Apply: NPHF awards this scholarship to graduate students who have made noteworthy contributions to their school/community or in patient care. Candidates must be enrolled in a nurse practitioner program at the master's or doctoral level. Only U.S. residents may apply.
Find Online Nurse Practitioner Programs
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