What Is a Nurse Practitioner?

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Nurse practitioners (NPs), also called advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), are nurses who can perform a wide range of medical functions, including many that overlap with doctors.

NPs are situated between registered nurses (RNs) and physicians when it comes to the type of education they have and the amount of responsibility they have for taking care of people.

In this article, you'll learn about nurse practitioners' education, specialization, and level of autonomy as compared to RNs and MDs.

Nurse reading a medical chart while walking down a hospital hallway
John Fedele / Getty Images

Education and Training

To become an NP, you need to first go to school to become an RN.

Becoming an RN means getting an associate's degree (two years) or a bachelor's degree (four years) in nursing. This degree is called a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree, or BSN.

To become an NP, you need to go the four-year route. Depending on the program, by the time you get your BSN, you'll have between 700 and 800 hours of clinical experience (working with patients).

Next, you need to pass the National Council Licensure Examination to become a licensed RN. All states require RNs to be licensed.

Then, you go through a graduate program to earn a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP).

The coursework includes at least 500 hours of supervised clinical work. It typically takes between two years and four years to complete a program.

Finally, you have to pass the National NP Certification Board exam to become a licensed NP.

DNPs Favored over MSNs

While currently you can work as an NP with an MSN, that may change. Several organizations have called for DNPs to be the new standard for nurse practitioners.

Specialization

You'll choose a specialty when you start your NP program. Common specialties include:

  • Family
  • Neonatal
  • Pediatric
  • Adult
  • Geriatric
  • Acute care
  • Oncology (cancer)
  • Mental health
  • Women's health

Coursework focuses on specialties from the beginning.

Duties

Nurse practitioners can provide a broad range of care. Unlike RNs, they can:

  • Diagnose and treat illnesses
  • Write prescriptions
  • Order medical tests
  • Interpret test results
  • Coordinate primary and emergency care
  • Be primary care providers

The duties of an NP are very similar to those of a doctor. The primary thing NPs can't do that doctors can is independently perform surgical procedures.

NPs may have a different approach than doctors, though. The American Association of Nurse Practitioners says NP's training emphasizes the "health and well-being of the whole person" by focusing on:

  • Disease prevention
  • Promoting good health
  • Education
  • Counseling

NP Salary

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average yearly income for a nurse practitioner is just under $112,000.

Autonomy

In the U.S., about half of the states allow NPs to practice without direct oversight from a doctor. That means they have complete autonomy and can even go into private practice.

This is the source of some controversy in the medical community. The American Medical Association has argued that NPs have too much autonomy and their training isn't adequate for treating complex conditions.

But NPs say they're trained to know when a patient needs to be referred to a doctor or a specialist.

Meanwhile, increasing the number of NPs in the U.S. has helped the medical system deal with the shortage of primary care providers.

Summary

Nurse practitioners have to earn a Master's or Doctorate degree in nursing. They're then required to pass licensing exams.

NPs choose a speciality when starting a program and their coursework focuses on that specialty throughout.

NPs can diagnose and treat illness and perform most of the functions that doctors can. Some states require NPs to be overseen by a doctor while others allow them to practice without oversight.

The autonomy of NPs is the source of some controversy in the medical community.

A Word From Verywell

If you're interested in a medical career or looking for a primary care practitioner, it helps to know what an NP is and how the position is different from other healthcare roles.

When you're the patient, it's important for you to be comfortable with your healthcare provider. Be honest and keep the lines of communication open, especially if you think you need to see a doctor or specialist.

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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Association of Nurse Practitioners. What's a nurse practitioner (NP)?

  2. Nurse Practitioner Schools. How to become a nurse practitioner. Updated August 20, 2021.

  3. American Association of Nurse Practitioners. Issues at a glance: full practice authority. Updated December 2019.

  4. All Nursing Schools. Here's what you'll study in a nurse practitioner program.

  5. Cedars Sinai. Can I see a nurse practitioner instead of a doctor? January 27, 2019.

  6. American Medical Association. AMA successfully fights scope of practice expansions that threaten patient safety.

  7. American Enterprise Institute. Nurse practitioners: a solution to America’s primary care crisis. September 18, 2018.