Nurse Practitioner Programs

Nurse Practitioner programs open doors to advanced nursing careers. Explore the ins and outs of these programs, their benefits, and what it takes to become a skilled NP.
Nurse Practitioner Programs
A nurse practitioner program is a graduate-level program with advanced clinical training courses that focus intensively on diagnostic, therapeutic, and preventative healthcare for patients with complex healthcare needs. Completing this program leads to a Master’s or clinical doctorate credential, enabling students to work as advanced practice nurses in pediatrics, psychiatry, women’s health, family medicine, and acute care.

What Is a Nurse Practitioner Program?

Nurse practitioner programs are graduate-level programs that prepare students to become advanced practice nurses. While many nurse practitioner programs are available, the most common is the Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). These degrees give individuals the knowledge and skills needed to function as nurse practitioners.

Nurse practitioner programs consist of classroom and clinical components. Students learn about common conditions and diseases, pharmacology, diagnostic testing, physical assessment techniques for patients of all ages, and the practical aspects of providing care. Graduates are prepared with a solid theoretical foundation in addition to clinical practice. The coursework, combined with the clinical experiences, produces experts who can diagnose and treat patients with a wide range of common and complex conditions.

Types of Nurse Practitioner Programs

Registered nurses who want to strengthen their skills and advance in their careers can pursue a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree. Understanding the differences between the two is crucial to making the right choice about your education.

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

An MSN degree is a graduate-level degree in nursing involving intensive study in clinical areas, such as cardiovascular nursing, oncology nursing, primary care nursing, pediatric nursing, and gerontology. MSN programs take approximately two years to complete. In general, MSN degree programs are designed for nurses who want to practice in a clinical specialization. In contrast, DNP programs are typically geared towards nurses preparing for leadership positions.

Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)

A Doctor of Nursing Practice is a terminal nursing degree. A terminal degree is the highest academic degree awarded in nursing. Nurses with either a BSN or MSN may enter a DNP program, which takes as few as two years of full-time study to complete. Working nurses who attend courses part-time will typically take 3-4 years to earn their degree.

DNP-prepared nurses are prepared for leadership and management positions at the top of the nursing field. The scope of practice for a DNP-prepared nurse encompasses every aspect of nursing, including clinical, administrative, education, quality improvement, policy development, and research. For example, a nurse practitioner with an MSN degree may deliver bedside care in a hospital setting, while a DNP serving as a nurse practitioner may provide bedside care and lead a team of nurses in an expanded role.

Online Nurse Practitioner Programs

Online NP programs are a modern, flexible approach to obtaining an advanced nursing degree. These programs allow RNs to earn their Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degrees primarily online. This means you can pursue your education from the comfort of your home or any location with an internet connection, without the need to attend traditional, on-campus classes.

Clinical Requirements for Online NP Programs

One crucial aspect of becoming an NP, whether through online or traditional programs, is clinical training. Online NP programs are no exception. To ensure you gain the hands-on experience necessary for NP practice, online programs include clinical requirements.

Typically, you’ll need to identify a local preceptor or healthcare provider who will serve as your mentor during clinical rotations. You’ll also be responsible for finding suitable clinical sites aligned with your chosen NP specialization.  These rotations come with specific objectives and competencies to help you achieve a well-rounded NP education. Some programs may also require proctored exams to assess your clinical knowledge and skills.

Nurse Practitioner Specializations

When students enter a nurse practitioner program, they can choose a general path of practice or an area of specialization that offers a specific type of care or treats a particular patient population. The area of specialization you choose will influence the duties you perform as a nurse practitioner and the type of patients you work with. Listed below is an overview of the most popular nurse practitioner specializations.

Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner (AGACNP)

The Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner (AGACNP) specialty prepares nurses for various practice settings, including advanced acute care nursing, geriatrics, cardiology, oncology, internal medicine, neurosurgical, trauma, emergency, and intensive care departments. An Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner provides a full spectrum of care for patients with complex, acute conditions, including acute care management and disease prevention.

Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner (AGPCNP)

The role of an Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner (AGPCNP) is to assess and manage the health care of adults, from adolescents to seniors, with an emphasis on diverse and high-risk populations with acute and chronic conditions. AGPCNPs perform physical examinations, obtain medical histories, order and evaluate diagnostic tests, and administer pharmacological and non-pharmacological therapies.

Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP)

A family nurse practitioner (FNP) has a broad scope of practice, from treating acute and chronic illnesses to educating patients about disease prevention. As advanced practice registered nurses, FNPs provide a full range of family-focused health care to patients of all ages, from infants to seniors. FNPs often seek additional diabetes, cardiac-vascular, pain management, or obesity management certifications.

Pediatric Nurse Practitioner-Acute Care (PNP-AC)

A pediatric nurse practitioner – acute care (PNP-AC) is an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) that provides restorative care for pediatric patients that require intensive monitoring, complex therapies, and ongoing management of complex, acute, chronic, and critical health conditions. PNP-ACs work closely with pediatric nurses and other interprofessional team members in hospital-based pediatric acute care areas, emergency departments, and pediatric intensive care units that manage the needs of patients from newborns to young adults age with rapidly changing and unstable clinical conditions.

Pediatric Nurse Practitioner — Primary Care (PNP-PC)

A Pediatric Nurse Practitioner – Primary Care (PNP-PC) is an expert clinician who provides primary health care for infants, children, and adolescents in ambulatory settings. Ambulatory settings may include public health clinics, community health centers, specialty care clinics, family practices, and private pediatric practices. The specialty has a strong emphasis on the treatment, prevention, and management of common acute pediatric illnesses and care that supports the optimal health of children.

Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP)

Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioners (PMHNPs) assess, diagnose, and treat patients with mental illness and co-occurring disorders. This specialty involves a full range of primary mental health care services, including psychosocial assessments, emergency psychiatric care, and psychotherapeutic management. PMHNPs may provide therapy and prescribe medications for patients with substance abuse problems or mental health disorders.

Women's Health Nurse Practitioner (WHNP)

A Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner (WHNP) provides assessment, diagnosis, and treatment for women’s unique health care needs across their lifespan. The specialty focuses on preventative care such as breast cancer screenings, contraceptive care, and Papanicolaou (Pap) tests. Still, it may also include other services such as fertility evaluation, pregnancy testing, prenatal visits, and menopausal care.

Popular NP Program Concentrations

Nurses enrolled in a nurse practitioner program are provided with the unique opportunity to pursue a course of study that concentrates their practice in a specific area of the population or type of medical condition. Program electives can cover a wide variety of subjects and skills, and the emphasis will directly contribute to their certification process and enhance their practice experience. Below are some of the most common NP concentrations available.

Diabetes Care

An elective concentration in diabetes care consists of courses that provide students with advanced preparation in diabetes care practice and the sub-specialty of medical management of pediatric and adult diabetes.

Emergency Care

An emergency care concentration offers a unique curriculum that prepares nurses to treat patients with urgent, high acuity illnesses, trauma, and life-threatening injuries. Emergency Nurse Practitioners must understand how to recognize and quickly initiate life-saving care and manage complex patient needs.

Geriatric Care

Geriatric care is a subspecialty practice that emphasizes focused care for older adults, particularly frail older adults. The role of an Adult-Gerontology Nurse Practitioner is to support functional independence and improve the physical and psychosocial well-being of older adults.

Neonatal Care

A program concentration in Neonatal Care consists of courses that prepare nurses to address the complex health needs of acutely ill neonates and infants. Neonatal Nurse Practitioners may care for infants who need care due to complications of prematurity, low birth weights, heart abnormalities, infections, or other long-term health conditions.

Palliative Care

Palliative Care is an area of focus that emphasizes symptom management and components of end-of-life care, such as quality of life and relief of distress for patients. Patients living with serious illnesses are at risk for symptoms that may lead to unwanted side effects, pain, and suffering and significantly decrease their quality of life and function. This concentration is designed to equip nurses with the expertise to address these needs.

Additional Resources

Nurse Practitioner Programs FAQ

How long does it take to become a nurse practitioner?

Becoming a nurse practitioner can take between six and eight years from when you commit to entering the profession. Nurse practitioners are highly educated professionals who have completed a registered nursing program (two to four years), obtained a master’s degree (two to three years), and passed the national certification exam.

What is the fastest way to become a nurse practitioner?

The answer to this question depends on your starting point. Nurse practitioner programs can accommodate various points of academic entry depending on the education and experience of the applicant.

Suppose you are in high school, and your goal is to become an NP as quickly as possible. In that case, the fastest and most direct path involves earning your four-year BSN degree and then immediately applying to graduate school to earn a Masters of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree. Unfortunately, nursing schools do not provide the option to complete a Master’s degree alongside your BSN.

Can you go from RN to NP?

Suppose you already possess an RN license and want to pursue a graduate degree. In that case, there are nursing “bridge” programs that allow nurses to earn a BSN and then immediately segue into MSN courses. There are also “accelerated” nursing programs that enroll students with an RN license into an intensive prerequisite course of study that precedes master’s level coursework. Accelerated nursing programs are structured at a quickened pace so that they may require less time and credit hours than their bridge program counterparts.

Is NP school hard to get into?

Nurse practitioners make significant medical decisions for their patients and are trusted with tremendous responsibility. As a result, application requirements for NP programs can be pretty demanding. According to a U.S. News survey in 2019, the average acceptance rate reported by 204 ranked nursing programs was 66%. However, the average acceptance rate of the most competitive master’s programs was less than 20%, with the lowest acceptance rate reported at just 6%.

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