Nursing is a profession within the health care sector that is focused on the care of individuals, families, and communities so they can achieve, maintain, or recover optimal health and quality of life.

Research from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that there are almost twice as many nurses in health care than any other kind of profession. (1)

Some nurses may choose to extend their career and advance their clinical training by earning a graduate degree—either a master’s or doctorate. These nurses are called Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRN’s).

Nurse practitioner (NP) is one of the four recognized general areas of specialization for APRNs-the other three being Clinical Nurse Specialists (CNSs), Nurse anesthetists (CRNAs), and Nurse Midwives (CNMs).

The role of the nurse practitioner was created in 1965 and has been steadily evolving since then. (2) It is quickly becoming the preferred level of preparation in this field.

So just what is a nurse practitioner and what can they help you with?

nurse practitioners looking at a chart

Nurse practitioners work collaboratively with registered nurses, doctors, social workers, registered dietitians, and others to provide personalized treatment for each individual.

What is a nurse practitioner?

Nurse practitioners are registered nurses who have additional education and nursing experience. The path to becoming a nurse practitioner in the United States starts by earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). Additionally, they require licensure as a registered nurse (RN) and experience in the generalist RN role. Then, one must graduate from an accredited graduate (MSN) or doctoral (DNP) program, this is an additional 1.5 to 3 years of post-baccalaureate training with an additional 500-1500 hours of practical training.

Nurse practitioners are licensed in all states and the District of Columbia, and practice under the rules and regulations of the state in which they are licensed.

To be recognized as expert health care providers and ensure the highest quality of care, nurse practitioners undergo rigorous national certification, periodic peer review, clinical outcome evaluations, and adhere to a code for ethical practices. Self-directed continued learning and professional development are also essential to maintaining clinical competency.

What does a nurse practitioner do?

Originally, nurse practitioners were expected to act as an extension of physicians and worked primarily to improve the health of children. Today, the role has become much broader (3) than it once was, and nurse practitioners often focus on various specialties.

Nurse practitioners bring together medical knowledge with the values and skills of nursing. They provide high-quality care in rural, urban and suburban communities, in many types of settings including clinics, hospitals, emergency rooms, urgent care sites, private physician or nurse practitioner practices, nursing homes, schools, colleges, and public health departments.

nurse showing a patient a chart

Nurse practitioners combine medical knowledge with the values and skills of nursing.

The exact responsibilities of a nurse practitioner depend on that person’s specialization as well as the state in which they practice. In general, nurse practitioners collaborate with health care professionals and other individuals to provide a full range of primary, acute, and specialty health care services, including:

  • Ordering, performing and, and interpreting diagnostic tests such as x-rays and bloodwork.
  • Diagnosing and treating acute and chronic conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, infections, and injuries.
  • Prescribing medications, supplements, and other treatments.
  • Managing a patient’s’ overall care.
  • Counseling.
  • Educating patients on disease prevention and positive health and lifestyle choices.

What is the role of a nurse practitioner?

A nurse practitioner’s role generally focuses on preventative and holistic care, with personalized treatment for each individual patient. Because nurse practitioners often do their advanced training in a specialized area, they can usually offer some degree of specialized expertise alongside their regular duties. (4)

Specialty areas include:

  • Acute care
  • Adult health
  • Family health
  • Gerontology health
  • Neonatal health
  • Oncology
  • Pediatric/child health
  • Psychiatric/mental health
  • Women’s health

Nurse practitioners may also have sub-specialties in areas including:

  • Allergy & Immunology
  • Cardiovascular
  • Dermatology
  • Emergency
  • Endocrinology
  • Gastroenterology
  • Hematology & Oncology
  • Neurology
  • Occupational Health
  • Orthopedics
  • Pulmonology & Respiratory
  • Sports Medicine
  • Urology
nurse practitioner holding water and a pill box reaching out to patient

Nurse practitioners hold prescriptive privileges in all 50 states and can administer controlled substances in 49 states (4).

How do nurse practitioners and physicians work together?

Both nurse practitioners and physicians provide quality health care that improves the health and wellbeing of patients, and there are some similarities in how they each achieve this. For example, both nurse practitioners and doctors can record patients’ medical histories and symptoms in order to diagnose health issues. They can also work together to deliver patient care.

While doctors and nurse practitioners have many similarities, there are some notable differences. The biggest difference between the two is the amount of time spent on training. While nurse practitioners have more training than a registered nurse, they receive less training than a doctor. (5)

They also are licensed differently. In California for example, nurse practitioners are licensed by the Nursing Board and physicians are licensed by the Medical Board.

Duties of nurse practitioners and physicians

The duties of nurse practitioners revolve primarily around providing primary care to patients, whereas the duties of physicians may encompass more complex patient diagnoses, specialty care, and treatments.

When nurse practitioners provide care for patients whose condition becomes more complex or unstable, they will often transfer care to or work collaboratively with a physician. For example, when a patient has unstable high blood pressure that is difficult to control. A physician might be consulted to review and prescribe appropriate medication. Once the patient becomes stable, the nurse practitioner can return to being the patient’s primary health care provider.

A patient needing a medical procedure that requires surgery will need to be treated by a physician. However, being treated for the flu, identifying the source of a persistent cough or having a curious blemish examined can be handled just as capably by a nurse practitioner.

Nurse practitioners work with, rather than replace, other health care providers, including physicians. They are part of an interdisciplinary team that includes registered nurses, doctors, social workers, registered dietitians, and others. While seeing a nurse practitioner, you can still see your family doctor or any other healthcare provider.

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