When I tell folks I’m a nurse practitioner (NP), I know that this question will almost always pop up next: “What is a nurse practitioner, exactly? How is that different from a nurse?”
Since you asked…
What is a Nurse Practitioner?
The nurse practitioner role was created in 1965 by Loretta Ford (a nurse) and Henry Silver (a doctor). The goal was to increase primary care providers in underserved urban and rural areas. Since then, the nurse practitioner profession in the U.S. (and many other countries around the world) has continuously expanded and evolved. There are now over 270,000 licensed nurse practitioners in the United States. Americans visit NPs more than one billion times per year!
Nurse practitioners (NP), as defined by the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, are licensed, autonomous clinicians who manage patients’ medical conditions, promote wellness and prevent disease.
Nurse practitioners must obtain, at a minimum, a master’s degree from an approved, accredited university before being bestowed the title of NP. Nowadays, the doctorate of nursing practice (DNP) is fast becoming the favored level of preparation for many NPs. And a lot of masters-prepared NPs are going back to school to obtain their DNP.
We can specialize in a variety of different areas including primary care, pediatrics, women’s health, mental health, holistic health, pain & palliative care, gerontology, and acute care just to name a few. My chosen field was adult acute care with a subspecialty in critical care.
Before NPs can start practicing independently, they must apply for a state license and take a board exam in their chosen specialty (issued by an approved accrediting body). Once these two things are done and dusted, NPs are deemed licensed, board-certified practitioners.
It’s not unusual for NPs to be board certified in more than one specialty. And many go on to subspecialize in areas such as critical care, emergency medicine, palliative care, pain management, neurology, cardiology, pulmonary medicine, dermatology, onsite health… and the list goes on.
We must also be constantly engaged in continuing education and lifelong learning so we can stay on top of the ever-changing world of medicine, nursing, technology, and policy.
Furthermore, all nurse practitioners must maintain licensure as a registered nurse (RN). In essence, all NPs are registered nurses but not all registered nurses are NPs. The biggest difference between NPs and RNs is that nurse practitioners can formulate medical diagnoses, order treatments and prescribe medications.
What Do Nurse Practitioners Do?
Generally speaking, NPs are able to diagnose and treat illnesses and injuries. We can perform head-to-toe physical exams, obtain medical histories, order or perform diagnostic tests, prescribe medications and provide health education to individual patients and communities. Many NPs are also trained to perform medical procedures such as suturing, wound lancing/drainage, mole removal, placing breathing tubes, and inserting body drains and catheters.
The scope of practice for nurse practitioners varies by state, specialty and facility. In some states, NPs can practice independently without the supervision of a physician. In other states, NPs need to establish a relationship with a ‘collaborating’ doctor.
The Institute of Medicine has called for the removal of any barriers preventing nurse practitioners from practicing independently and to the full extent of our education and training.
In addition to serving as direct healthcare providers, many nurse practitioners can be found working as researchers, educators, administrators, entrepreneurs, writers, and policymakers.
Do Nurse Practitioners Provide Safe, Quality Care?
They sure do.
There is a comprehensive body of literature and research proving that NPs provide safe, cost-effective, patient-centered care to people all over the world. In fact, care provided by NPs has been found to be comparable in quality to care rendered by physicians.
A 1994 article in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) concluded that “When measures of diagnostic certainty, management competence, or comprehensiveness, quality, and cost are used, virtually every study indicates that the primary care provided by nurse practitioners is equivalent or superior to that provided by physicians.”
Some physicians fiercely disputed these findings. But many subsequent studies, including a randomized trial in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), supports the fact that NPs are capable, competent, caring medical providers.
As a nurse practitioner myself, I can tell you that we continuously strive to provide safe, holistic, evidence-based care to our patients. We also value and appreciate the collaborative relationships we have with our physician colleagues. And NPs recognize when their patients have medical issues that require consultation or involvement by a physician or other medical professional.
What’s With All the Letters Behind Nurse Practitioners’ Names?
There are numerous accrediting bodies that certify nurse practitioners in the United States. And some states have their own rules governing the titles nurse practitioners are allowed to use. This leads to a long, confusing list of titles, credentials, and licensures that can potentially be conferred on NPs.
If you’ve ever visited an NP for your care you may have witnessed something like this on his nametag:
Al B. Helpful, DNP, RN, AGACNP-BC, FAAN
This means that Al has graduated with a doctorate of nursing practice, is a registered nurse as well as a board-certified adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner and he is a fellow of the American Academy of Nursing.
These initials are meant to convey nurse practitioners’ qualifications, credentials, education, and licensures to the public and other healthcare professionals. But it’s next to impossible for most people to work out what the hell all these letters mean (myself included).
If you’re unsure of what any of the letters mean on your nurse practitioner’s nametag, just ask! We’re happy to tell you our qualifications and answer any questions you have about our role.
- Nurse practitioners are registered nurses with a graduate degree (master’s, doctorate or both) in advanced practice nursing.
- Nurse practitioners are certified in a variety of specialties and practice within multiple healthcare settings.
- Many NPs are board-certified in more than one specialty.
- Nurse practitioners can diagnose and treat illnesses and injuries as well as prescribe medications.
- Numerous studies have shown that NPs provide quality, safe, evidence-based care that is comparable to physicians.
I hope this has helped you understand the role of nurse practitioners a little better!
Have a question for me? Or want to share your experiences with the healthcare system? Email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
I’d love to hear from you!