How to Become an Acute Care Nurse Practitioner

Advanced practice nurses, including acute care nurse practitioners (ACNPs), often earn generous salaries and can pursue a prosperous job market. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects employment for nurse practitioners to grow by 26% from 2018-28, which is much faster than all other occupations.

ACNPs work in all types of healthcare environments, providing patient care and treatment for acute issues. This guide introduces the career field, detailing how to become an acute care nurse practitioner and requirements for licensure.

What Is an Acute Care Nurse Practitioner?

Acute care nurse practitioners (ACNPs) work in many different healthcare settings, including emergency and critical care, trauma care, and interventional or procedural care. An ACNP must obtain a graduate education in nursing, generally a master’s degree at minimum. These programs prepare ACNPs to provide more advanced patient care, often serving in similar roles as licensed physicians. ACNPs respond to and meet patients’ needs to provide valuable care.

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What Do Acute Care Nurse Practitioners Do?

Depending on their work environment, ACNPs may serve in different roles. For example, ACNPs working in emergency or critical care settings may primarily handle acute care-related medicine and treatment, assessing patients and determining the best course of treatment. They diagnose patients and work alongside other healthcare professionals, like licensed physicians, to provide necessary treatment.

Apart from these primary nursing skills, ACNPs must also possess a positive bedside manner, along with the ability to communicate information thoughtfully to patients and their families. Attention to detail, organization, and the ability to work well on teams also serve as important skills for ACNPs.

Where Do Acute Care Nurse Practitioners Work?

ACNPs possess the necessary skills to work in many different healthcare settings. General NPs most often work in physicians’ offices, providing primary and acute care to patients in non-emergency settings, while ACNPs typically work in hospitals and urgent care facilities to provide treatment for acute injuries and illnesses.

ACNPs also provide valuable care for patients dealing with chronic, long-term, and complex health issues. ACNPs undertake the same training as general NPs, preparing them to provide quality care and treatment in many different care scenarios. They work alongside other healthcare professionals, including registered nurses (RNs) and licensed physicians.

Steps to Becoming an Acute Care Nurse Practitioner

Acute care nurse practitioner requirements include pursuing the appropriate education and earning the required licenses to practice. The steps below outline how to become an acute care nurse practitioner.

  1. EARN A BACHELOR OF SCIENCE IN NURSING (BSN) DEGREE
    Graduate nursing programs often require each candidate to obtain a BSN before admission. This program adequately prepares nursing students for graduate study and advanced practice in the field. Nurses also may choose to earn BSNs to increase their salary potential and take on more advanced job roles.
    While earning BSNs, students should take courses and participate in clinical experience that directly prepares them for graduate study in acute care nursing.

  2. OBTAIN LICENSURE AS A REGISTERED NURSE
    Before earning a license as an NP, a prospective ACNP must hold a valid RN license in their state. Requirements for this license vary from state to state, so applicants should check with their state’s board of nursing for specifics. However, earning licensure generally requires a nursing preparation program and passing the NCLEX-RN.

  3. PURSUE SPECIALIZATIONS WHILE WORKING AS AN RN IN AN ACUTE CARE SETTING
    While working as an RN, prospective ACNPs should pursue specializations that provide practical experience. Even before earning a graduate nursing degree or pursuing an ACNP license, RNs can earn certifications in acute and critical care to gain valuable credentials and experience in these areas.
    Nurses can pursue different certifications to align with their career goals. They can earn critical care registered nurse certifications for working with adultpediatric, and neonatal patients. These certifications may also help nurses gain admission to master’s programs.

  4. GAIN ADMISSION TO AN ACCREDITED MASTER OF SCIENCE IN NURSING (MSN) OR DOCTOR OF NURSING PRACTICE (DNP) PROGRAM WITH A SPECIALTY IN ACUTE CARE
    Although specific requirements vary by state, a master’s degree generally serves as the minimum education required to earn a license as an NP. State nursing boards often look for accredited graduate nursing programs intended to prepare students for advanced practice.
    MSN programs generally require candidates to obtain BSNs before admission, and DNP programs often require an MSN. However, some MSN-to-DNP programs accept applicants with only bachelor’s-level credentials. Although earning a DNP is preferred and often leads to higher salaries and more advanced job roles, nurses can become ACNPs with a master’s degree.
    Students should consider MSN or DNP programs with available specializations in acute care, including pediatric acute care or adult-gerontology acute care (AG-ACNP).

  5. EARN AN MSN OR DNP DEGREE
    Earning either an MSN or DNP serves as a primary step in becoming an ACNP. These programs prepare students to take on advanced positions and roles in nursing care. While in the program, students generally pursue a specialization, focusing their studies and clinical practice in that area. Prospective ACNPs should take courses and pursue clinical experience that will directly prepare them for careers in acute care nursing. Many programs offer specific degree tracks designed to prepare students for these careers.

  6. OBTAIN CERTIFICATION
    ACNPs often practice under a general NP license and earn an additional specialty certification in acute care. ACNPs may pursue certifications offered by several different organizations, depending on their specific practice area.
    ACNPs who wish to work with adults may pursue the acute care nurse practitioner certification for adult-gerontology (ACNPC-AG) offered by the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses. The Pediatric Nursing Certification Board offers the certified pediatric nurse practitioner-acute care (CPNP-AC) credential, and the American Nursing Credentialing Center provides the adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner certification (AGACNP-BC).

  7. OBTAIN NURSE PRACTITIONER STATE LICENSURE
    ACNPs must hold valid NP licenses to practice. Requirements for this license vary by state. Often, state boards require at least an MSN, along with passing an exam in a specialty area. Each applicant must submit a formal application and documentation of education, exams, and nursing experience.

  8. FIND EMPLOYMENT
    Upon obtaining licensure and appropriate credentials, ACNPs may then seek employment in their specialty area. Depending on their career goals, they may pursue jobs in their current healthcare system or seek advanced positions in other settings.

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Becoming an Acute Care Nurse Practitioner FAQs


  • How Long Do You Have to Go to School to Be an Acute Care Nurse Practitioner?

    The time it takes to become an acute care nurse practitioner can vary based on several factors. For example, while a master’s serves as a general minimum education requirement, some nurses may choose to pursue a DNP, which takes additional years of study. From BSN to the MSN, it may take 6-8 years to complete these degrees.


  • Are Acute Care Nurse Practitioners in Demand?

    Nurse practitioners offer valuable services and primary care options for patients, and the BLS projects the field to grow by 26% from 2018-2028. ACNPs provide patient-centered care in many different healthcare environments, particularly in areas where there may be a shortage of licensed physicians or where patients may have limited access to care.


  • What Is the Difference Between an Acute Care Nurse Practitioner and a Registered Nurse?

    ACNPs hold more advanced credentials than RNs, who may possess only an associate degree and complete a nursing preparation program before licensure. ACNPs must obtain at least an MSN, and some earn DNPs. In many states, NPs may practice and provide patient care independently from a physician’s supervision.


  • Can Nurse Practitioners Start Their Own Practice?

    NPs can open their own private practices in certain states. Individual state nursing boards mandate the scope of practice for NPs, so specifics vary from state to state. NPs may practice independently if they maintain a joint protocol with a licensed physician.


  • Can I Get Licensed if My Degree Is From an Unaccredited Program?

    Most state nursing boards explicitly require a degree earned from a regionally accredited nursing program to become licensed. Additionally, some states may require licensees to earn a degree from a program accredited by a recognized nursing accreditation agency. These requirements can vary from state to state.


Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Credentials

Earning the appropriate credentials is a crucial step in becoming an ACNP. Certifications provide additional proof of qualification for future employers and may contribute to earning higher salaries and more advanced positions.

Specific requirements for ACNPs and the various available certifications vary from state to state. Prospective ACNPs should research the requirements for NPs in their state, along with the requirements for any other optional certificates they may want to pursue.

The sections below provide some further information on licensure and certification for ACNPs.

ACUTE CARE NURSE PRACTITIONER LICENSING

Before you can earn licensure as an ACNP, you must possess a license as an RN. The requirements for each of these licenses differ, as each one affords different levels of authority and nursing practice.

State-based nursing boards regulate licensing for RNs, so specific requirements vary from state to state. However, nurses in most states follow this general process for earning RN licenses:

  • Earn a diploma, associate degree, or BSN. Many nurses earn diplomas through nursing schools based in hospitals. Others pursue associate degrees through community colleges.
  • Complete any required clinical practice. Most programs build clinical experience into their curriculum. Some states may require more clinical practice than others.
  • Take and pass the required nursing exam(s). Generally, states only require nurses to pass the NCLEX-RN, administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing.

Once you possess a valid RN license in good standing, you may pursue an ACNP license, which commonly requires you to do the following:

  • Earn an MSN or DNP degree. State nursing boards generally require a graduate nursing degree from an accredited school to obtain an advanced practice nursing license.
  • Pass the required exam in your specialty area. Many states require ACNPs to pass the highest credentialing exam in their specific field, as offered by an approved credentialing agency.
  • Maintain your license through continuing education and renewal requirements.


ACUTE CARE NURSE PRACTITIONER CERTIFICATION


  • Critical Care Registered Nurse Adult: Candidates for the CCRN-adult certification may pursue a two- or five-year option. The two-year path entails 1,750 hours of nursing practice with adult, critically ill patients, and the five-year path requires 2,000 hours. All candidates must pass an exam.
  • Critical Care Registered Nurse Pediatric: The CCRN-pediatric certification offers a two- or five-year option. The two-year path includes 1,750 hours of nursing practice with critically and acutely ill pediatric patients, while the five-year path entails 2,000 hours. All candidates must pass an exam.
  • Critical Care Registered Nurse Neonatal: Candidates may pursue a two- or five-year path to the CCRN-neonatal certification. The two-year path requires 1,750 hours of nursing practice with critically ill neonatal patients, and the five-year path entails 2,000 hours. All candidates must pass an exam.
  • Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Certification Adult-Gerontology: Candidates for ACNPC-AG certification must complete an advanced practice, graduate-level program intended to prepare them to work with adult and gerontological patients. The program must take place at an accredited school. All candidates must pass an exam following the completion of the academic program.
  • Certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner-Acute Care: The CPNP-AC certification requires a master’s or doctoral degree from an accredited program. Candidates must have pursued a concentration in pediatric acute care or a primary care track. Each candidate must possess at least 500 direct clinical care hours in pediatric acute care and pass an exam.
  • Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Certification: Candidates for the AGACNP-BC certification must hold a valid RN license and a master’s or doctoral degree in nursing, specifically with a focus in adult and gerontology acute care. The program must hold accreditation from an approved agency, and each student must complete at least 500 faculty-supervised practice hours. The certification requires an exam.

Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Resources

American Association of Nurse Practitioners
This association provides valuable resources for practicing clinicians and students, including career information, continuing education opportunities, and journals and publications. Members also receive access to savings on certifications and insurance.

American Association of Critical Care Nurses
As the world’s largest organization for specialty nursing, this association provides professional support for practicing critical and acute care nurses. Nurses can access continuing education, clinical resources, certifications, and conferences.

CDC Nurse Practitioner Resources
This resource page from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers information on laws regarding the scope of practice for NPs, including federal and state policies for practice authority and licensure.

American Nurses Credentialing Center
The ANCC provides the AG-ACNP certification, which is recognized by many state nursing boards. Nurses may also pursue other credentials and certificates through this organization.

American Association of Colleges of Nursing
AACN provides the programmatic accreditation required by many state nursing boards for licensure. The website offers a program search tool, an online learning center for continuing education, and information on policy.

Learn More About Acute Care Nurse Practitioners and Related Careers

Prospective ACNPs may benefit from many of our available resources. The pages below offer detailed information on related careers and academic programs, frequently asked questions about becoming an NP, and other information for students considering an advanced nursing career. Check out the pages below to learn more.

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