Nurse practitioner inside a hospital

Nurse practitioners are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) who have undergone extensive training to treat their own patients. A nurse practitioner (NP) is a blend between a clinician and a nurse. They can examine, diagnose, and treat their own patients, and in some states, they can also write and dispense prescriptions.  Nurse practitioners (NPs) are at the highest level of nursing. They often work in physician’s offices, and some states even allow them to open their own practices. 

Whether you are already a practicing nurse or want to become an NP with no prior experience, this is the guide for you.

What is the difference between a nurse practitioner and a registered nurse (RN)?

Education and certification separate NPs and RNs. A nurse practitioner is a nurse who has completed at least a master’s degree and passed an exam from an NP certifying board. They have also completed additional training in their nurse practitioner area of specialty, such as family healthcare or pediatrics. 

Registered nurses must hold an associate’s or bachelor’s degree and pass the NCLEX-RN exam. 

Nurse practitioners can assume greater responsibilities than RNs, including making diagnoses, prescribing medications, and ordering lab work and diagnostics tests. In addition, while RNs treat patients of physicians, NPs can have their own patients and an RN supporting them.

What work does a nurse practitioner do day to day?

Nurse practitioners often work in offices, tending to patients similarly to medical doctors (MDs or DOs).

Their duties include:

  • Managing patients’ overall care plans

  • Writing, updating, and reviewing medical reports for all of their patients

  • Meeting new patients and performing preliminary assessments

  • Performing age-appropriate physical examinations

  • Diagnosing acute and chronic health conditions 

  • Creating healthcare treatment plans, writing referrals, and prescriptions

  • Provide telehealth consultations

  • Educate patients and families on vaccinations, medications, and healthcare management

  • Take medical histories and conduct physical examinations in line with medical protocol

  • Coordinate with nurses and other physicians to ensure patients are always given the highest level of care 

NPs must effectively manage their patients while ensuring they operate in line with their organization’s protocol. NPs have quality indicators that ensure their patients’ care is consistent with the highest healthcare standards. 

Being an NP gives you greater independence than being an RN, but it also contains tremendous responsibility for your patient's well-being. As a result, many of them will turn to you as a primary care provider.

Where do nurse practitioners work?

Nurse practitioners work in physician’s offices, Veterans Affairs facilities, family healthcare practices, urgent care centers, and sometimes, hospitals. Where you work as an NP will vary depending on your area of specialization. 

What is it like to be a nurse practitioner?

Nurse practitioners allow you to see your patients and manage their care. Nurse practitioners have similar roles to physicians and have the most responsibility out of any nurse. 

If you decide to become a nurse practitioner, you’ll get to build long-term relationships with your patients. Being able to treat and help the same people continually is a rewarding part of the job.

NPs are frequently busy, working a 9-to-5 schedule with some after hours to record patients’ information and update reports. Therefore, it can offer more stability and free time than a typical RN’s schedule. 

Being an NP is great for achieving more independence as a nurse, honing your skills, and treating your own patients. However, it can be tiring, stressful, and challenging at times. Nurse practitioners assume a lot of responsibility, and their jobs can be demanding.

You’ll need to be a dedicated, hard worker to provide your patients with the best possible care. 

How much do nurse practitioners make?

Nurse practitioners are among the highest-earning nurses in the field. The average nurse practitioner salary in the United States is $116,438. However, most nurses make six figures, and it’s not uncommon for nurses with advanced degrees and certifications to be paid $30,000 to $50,000 more than the average RN.

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Are there different specialties of nurse practitioners?

There are many specialties for NPs, each focusing on a specific branch of medicine. Let’s take a closer look at five of the most popular nurse practitioner specialties. 

Family nurse practitioner (FNP)

FNPs treat patients in doctor's offices and medical clinics in children, adolescents, adults, and elderly patients. They often become primary care doctors for their patients and are used to treating various medical conditions, from acute illnesses to chronic conditions and diseases. 

A family nurse practitioner can also choose a sub-specialty, like allergies, diabetes, or gerontology. Being an FNP gives you tremendous flexibility over what patients you work with and the type of health conditions you treat. 

Adult gerontology nurse practitioner (A-GNP)

If you want to work specifically with the aging population, then being an A-GNP is the right career choice for you. These NPs have completed additional coursework and clinical practice with senior citizens; they have specialized knowledge in managing aging health and providing primary care for older people. 

Some A-GNPs work in outpatient clinics, while others provide home care or serve as a provider for nursing homes and assisted living facilities. They can also choose a subspecialty, such as diabetes and cardiology, to further narrow their career focus. 

Psychiatric nurse practitioner (PMHNP)

If you are passionate about mental health, you might thrive as a psychiatric nurse practitioner. These individuals handle all mental health and behavioral problems and may specialize in treating children, adults, or elderly populations. 

A PMHNP and a psychiatrist have many similarities, including their ability to prescribe medications. However, you will spend most of your time working closely with patients and their families to develop comprehensive treatment plans and objectives. 

PMHNPs also perform psychotherapy, tending to their patients’ mental health through direct interventions.

Neonatal nurse practitioner (NNP)

NNPs work in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), tending to premature and ill newborns and infants. While not all NNPs work exclusively in the NICU, many tend to focus their work on caring for high-risk babies and infants with congenital disabilities. They can also work in outpatient practices, caring for patients from birth through age 2. 

Being an NNP is a great career choice if you are passionate about helping babies get the best start in life. However, you will have to be comfortable working under pressure, as this job tends to be demanding and involve acute and critical care. 

Women’s health nurse practitioner (WHNP)

If you enjoy learning about oncology and helping advocate for women’s health, you might love working as a WHNP. Women’s health nurse practitioners specialize in reproductive health and women’s healthcare for adolescents, adults, and elderly females. They receive most of their primary care training, allowing them to establish long-term relationships with their clients.

WHNPs help their patients learn about sexual health, counsel them about infertility, help them explore contraceptive options, and address a wide range of gynecological conditions and health problems. 

Emergency nurse practitioner (ENP)

If you love the fast pace of the emergency room, consider becoming an ENP to offer your patients the most advanced nursing care. Nurses know that emergency care is a highly demanding specialization, but it can also be gratifying and exciting. 

ENPs tend to patients in ERs and urgent care centers across the nation. They treat patients of all ages and are trained to provide emergency care, such as life support. 

ENPs can earn direct experience after completing their NP program or participate in an emergency nurse practitioner fellowship after graduation. 

Many ENPs first become FNPs, then get certified as an ENP after getting enough clinical experience. 

There are even more specialties to consider, which makes being a nurse practitioner one of the most dynamic roles in nursing. You genuinely get to shape your career to align with your interests in medicine and provide direct care to populations you love working with.

Advantages and disadvantages of a career as a nurse practitioner

There are excellent benefits to becoming an NP, and many RNs pursue this credential after years of working in hospitals and clinics. They want to assume greater responsibility and tend to patients differently. But there are also cons to being a nurse practitioner to consider. 

Gaining a complete picture of the career can help you decide whether becoming an NP is the right path for you. 

Advantages of choosing a career as a nurse practitioner

1) Build relationships with your patients

In most types of nursing, patient turnover is high. For nurse practitioners, this usually isn’t the case. NPs tend to focus on primary care, allowing them to establish long-term relationships with patients. 

The longer you work with a patient, the better you can help them. It’s rewarding to see the same people over time and know that your treatment plans have made a difference in their lives.

2) Plenty of job opportunities

As advanced nurses, NPs are highly sought-after. They won’t have any trouble finding high-paying jobs in their target locations. With such a robust skill set and advanced knowledge, you won’t have to worry about being unable to find a job. As long as you have a strong resume and interview well, there is never a lack of opportunity for qualified NPs.

3) Financial stability

While everyone’s definition of financial security differs, NPs are some of the top earners in nursing. The average nurse practitioner makes at least $116,000 annually, and many positions offer even more. As a result, you will be able to rely on your job for the high pay that allows you to take care of your family and provide well for yourself. 

4) Flexibility

Many NPs can work part-time or even work from home! In addition, thanks to the expansion of telehealth services, many nurse practitioners are spending their days meeting patients from their own computers. 

Working part-time and still earning a significant income is also a major benefit. This allows NPs to have a greater work-life balance. 

Disadvantages of choosing a career as a nurse practitioner

1) The time commitment to education

It takes 6 to 8 years to become a fully certified nurse practitioner. You must be willing to earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree and commit to continuing education throughout your career. It is not the right job for someone who wants to get through their qualifications quickly and focus solely on work.

NPs also need to be open to learning throughout their careers. As new treatments, medications, and technologies emerge, they must be willing to learn them to give their patients the best healthcare possible.

2) Demanding responsibilities

Nurse practitioners take on greater patient care than any other type of nurse. Their jobs can be physically demanding. It’s not uncommon for a busy NP to feel exhausted. Work-life balance plays a crucial role in success.

3) Legal risks

With the ability to diagnose patients comes the risk of malpractice lawsuits. Patients can sue nurse practitioners if they make inaccurate diagnoses or prescribe improper care plans. The level of responsibility on your shoulders is immense, so you must continuously operate with a clear mind and total awareness of your patients’ risks.

How to become a nurse practitioner

Before you can work as a nurse practitioner, you must become an RN. Registered nurses with bachelor’s degrees can apply for a nurse practitioner master’s degree. If you haven’t started your educational journey yet, apply to nursing schools and pursue a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN).

After passing the NCLEX, RNs can start working to gain clinical experience while they study for their master’s program. Some nurse practitioner degrees also require at least one year of clinical experience before you can start your studies. 

Once you’ve earned your master’s, you can prepare for a nurse practitioner certification exam through one of the leading nurse practitioner boards. Then, after passing, you’ll be ready to start applying for your first job as an NP! 

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Frequently asked questions about nurse practitioners

How long does it take to become a nurse practitioner?

You will need to spend a minimum of six years earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree. Becoming a fully certified nurse practitioner takes around eight to ten years. Depending on your area of specialty and previous nursing experience, the amount of time it takes to become certified will vary.

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Are nurse practitioners doctors?

No, nurse practitioners are nurses. They have a master’s degree and have completed extensive training in their area of focus, such as women’s health or family care. Doctors complete a bachelor’s degree, attend medical school, then complete one or more residencies to become board-certified physicians. 

While nurse practitioners can operate like physicians in many ways, they do not have an M.D. or D.O. after their name and cannot perform specific medical procedures or any operations.

Is a nurse practitioner higher than a nurse?

Nurse practitioners are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) with master’s degrees. They work above RNs by tending to their own patients and overseeing their healthcare plans. In addition, RNs may work with NPs, following their care recommendations.