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How to Become a Women's Health Nurse Practitioner
By Janice Monti
Last Updated: February 2020
The growing demand for primary and preventive healthcare has created unprecedented employment opportunities for advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs). These professionals can provide many of the same medical services as doctors. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects jobs for APRNs to grow 26% through the next decade.
The women's health nurse practitioner (WHNP) specialization offers attractive career and salary prospects for advanced nursing graduates. This guide highlights women's health nurse practitioner requirements, including licensing and certification information.
What Is a Women's Health Nurse Practitioner?
WHNPs provide comprehensive healthcare to females across the lifespan. In many states, these advanced practice nurses can provide a full range of services independent of a doctor's supervision.
WHNPs rely on a holistic approach to patient care, diagnosing and treating conditions specific to women by addressing physical and psychosocial symptoms and needs. Like other APRNs, these highly trained nurses provide primary care services, help patients cope with chronic health issues, and assist with preventive healthcare maintenance.
What Do Women's Health Nurse Practitioners Do?
WHNPs may provide gynecological services, prenatal and postpartum care, and reproductive and sexual health information. They may assist OB-GYN physicians during surgeries; administer tests, such as sonograms, mammograms, and pap smears; and prescribe medication and contraception. In many states, WHNPs deliver primary care services of all kinds, independent of a doctor's supervision, diagnosing and treating acute and chronic illnesses.
These specialists must understand their patients' psychological needs as they experience emotions related to pregnancy, fertility, menopause, and other gynecological issues. WHNPs working in diverse communities must acquire the cultural competency and communication skills to address the specific needs of underrepresented patient populations.
Where Do Women's Health Nurse Practitioners Work?
While some states require WHNPs to work under a physician's direct supervision, many of these advanced practice nurses operate independently. WHNPs with practice autonomy enable healthcare facilities to handle greater patient loads and offer more services while costing less than full-time primary care physicians.
As the demand for healthcare services expands across the U.S., employers in a variety of settings increasingly rely on the expertise of WHNPs. Most WHNPs work in medical offices, OB-GYN and prenatal clinics, and hospitals. They also work in less traditional environments, such as women's prisons, community and student healthcare centers, and reproductive healthcare agencies.
Steps to Becoming a Women's Health Nurse Practitioner
Like other advanced nursing specializations, women's health nursing practice entails specific educational, national certification, and state license requirements. This section outlines the steps to earning a women's health nurse practitioner degree and finding employment.
Earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) Degree
While many nurses acquire their registered nurse (RN) license after completing an associate degree in nursing or a bachelor's in another field, a BSN provides the best educational pathway to becoming an RN and meeting the requirements for admission to a women's health practitioner graduate program. Aspiring women's health practitioners should choose a BSN program accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing. The program should include clinical experiences and coursework in statistics.
Obtain RN Licensure
While each state establishes specific requirements for RN licensure, all license-seekers need an associate or bachelor's degree. After receiving authorization to take the national RN test from their state board of nursing, applicants must achieve a passing score on the NCLEX-RN exam administered through the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN).
Pursue Specializations While Working as an RN
Individuals who pursue a nursing specialization develop expertise in a specific population or type of patient care. By the time students complete their undergraduate degree, gain clinical experience, and acquire RN licensing, they decide on their specialty focus. Degree-seekers who want to specialize in women's health should choose an advanced practice nursing program that meets WHNP certification requirements, including coursework in areas of primary care for women, gynecological health, and prenatal and postpartum care.
Gain Admission to an Accredited Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Program With a Specialty in Women's Health
Each women's nurse practitioner program establishes its own admission policies, but typically requires an accredited BSN degree, a valid RN license, and clinical experience. Currently, an MSN serves as the most common pathway to advanced nursing practice. However, the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses and other nursing groups propose that APRNs should earn a DNP. This degree prepares graduates for a range of professional roles in direct patient care and in management and policy positions.
Earn an MSN or DNP
WHNP programs consist of core and specialized coursework and clinical practice experiences known as preceptorships. Depending on the degree level, students typically begin their NP program taking core courses in advanced physiology, advanced pharmacology, and advanced health assessment and screening, followed by coursework in the women's health specialization. An MSN requires approximately two years of study, while a DNP may take three or more years depending on students' level of prior nursing education.
Obtain Certification From the National Certification Corporation (NCC)
Graduates of accredited MSN or DNP programs who have a current RN license may obtain the Women's Health Care Nurse Practitioner (WHNP-BC) certification. The certification process requires a passing score on a comprehensive exam that tests specialty knowledge and applications in physical assessment, pharmacology, obstetrics, gynecology, and primary care to women in inpatient and outpatient settings. Applicants may take a computerized or written version of the test. Nurses must renew their WHNP-BC certification every three years.
Obtain NP State Licensure
WHNPs must apply for licensure in the state where they intend to work. Because each state establishes its own licensing requirements, WHNPs should check with their state boards of nursing well before they finish their degree to discern current regulations. In general, state licensure requires at least a master's in nursing, a valid RN license, and WHNP-BC certification.
As communities across the country struggle to meet their primary and preventive healthcare needs, WHNPs who have completed certification and state licensing requirements should have no trouble finding rewarding positions. WHNPs can begin their job search by investigating employment listings from nursing organizations, such as the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) or Nurse.org. Job seekers can also check with their school's career placement office.
Becoming a Women's Health Nurse Practitioner FAQs
How Long Do You Have to Go to School to Be a Women's Health Nurse Practitioner?
The length of time needed to complete a WHNP program depends on the type of program and students' prior nursing education. Nurses with an associate degree may choose an RN-to-MSN degree, which may take up to three years to finish. RNs who have completed their bachelor's can earn an MSN in two years. BSN-to-DNP programs require 3-4 years.
How Many Hours a Week Does a Women's Health Nurse Practitioner Work?
Although WHNPs earn reasonably high salaries, they often work long hours. WHNPs employed in doctors' offices or clinics typically work eight-hour shifts five days a week. Hospitals and other in-patient settings may require these nurses to work on call and overtime, in 12- or 24-hour shifts, swing shifts, and graveyard shifts.
What Is the Difference Between a Women's Health Nurse Practitioner and a Nurse Midwife?
WHNPs, as APRNs, provide a full range of chronic healthcare services. They specialize in women's health issues throughout the lifespan with a focus on gynecological and reproductive health and preventive care. APRNs trained as certified nurse midwives (CNMs) also provide reproductive healthcare but focus primarily on pregnancy, labor, childbirth, and postnatal care.
Can a WHNP Deliver Babies?
WHNPs and CNMs are both APRNs trained to provide an array of patient services. However, only CNMs possess the specialized training and legal authority to deliver babies. WHNPs need a second certification as a CNM in order to deliver babies.
Can NPs Start Their Own Practice?
In states that allow independent practice, NPs may establish their own practice. Owning a practice offers NPs greater autonomy and decision-making authority for the management and delivery of patient care. Requirements differ by state, with some jurisdictions requiring the presence of a physician onsite or within an accessible distance.
Women's Health Nurse Practitioner Credentials
Advanced practice nurses including WHNPs must complete several years of education and specialized training before they can work in the field. This section outlines women's health nurse practitioner schooling, including how to acquire the required credentials. Degree-seekers can also review the difference between an RN and APRN license.
Women's nurse practitioners should always check with their state board of nursing and nursing credential organizations for the most current eligibility requirements. They should also investigate optional certifications that may help broaden their expertise and career potential in specializations, such as family practice, nurse midwifery, or neonatal care.
Women's Health Nurse Practitioner Licensing
Admission to a WHNP program requires an associate or BSN and an RN license. While educational requirements differ by state, all applicants for RN licenses must pass the NCLEX-RN examination, administered through the NCSBN. RN license-seekers must apply to the state board where they intend to practice before they can sit for the RN exam.
The next step to becoming a WHNP requires graduate-level training and certification as an APRN. Students must enroll in either an MSN or DNP program leading to a practice specialization for a particular population.
After completing the degree, prospective APRNs must take the certification exam in their intended practice specialty from the appropriate credentialing organization. In the case of WHNPs, the NCC administers the required certification exam. Candidates in other specializations typically take their exam through the AANP or the American Nurses Credentialing Center.
Before WHNPs can practice, they must apply to their state board of nursing for an APRN license. While licensing regulations vary by state, many nursing boards use the certification exam to assess a candidate's competency to practice. License-seekers should contact their state board to verify APRN requirements.
Women's Health Nurse Practitioner Certification
The Women's Health Care Nurse Practitioner certification exam serves as the national credential for this specialization. Graduates of WHNP programs with active RN licenses may apply online for this certificate through the NCC, submitting diploma and official transcripts electronically.
Once approved, candidates receive an eligibility letter, giving them a three-month window in which to take the test. The multiple-choice exam comprises 175 questions and takes approximately three hours to complete. Questions in the content areas of obstetrics and gynecology comprise 64% of the test, followed by 12% each in primary care and assessment, 9% in pharmacology, and 3% in professional issues and ethics.
NCC requires a payment of $325 for application and testing fees. Candidates must schedule the certification examination within eight years of graduation.
National Certification CorporationSince 1975, NCC has provided national certification programs for nurses, physicians, and other licensed healthcare professionals, including the WHNP credential.
American Association of Nurse PractitionersAANP represents the interests of more than 102,000 licensed NPs in the United States. Membership includes continuing education opportunities, conference registration discounts, and clinical resources. The association administers certifications for family, adult-gerontology, and emergency nurse practitioners.
American Nurses AssociationThe nation's largest and oldest nursing organization, ANA offers educational resources, provides career development opportunities, and lobbies on behalf of RNs. The association's American Nurse Credential Center administers accreditation and certification programs.
Learn More About Women's Health Nurse Practitioners and Related Careers
As you consider a career in an advanced practice nursing specialty, take advantage of the many resources that describe the different programs, available certifications, and employment outlook. Follow the links below to learn more about how to become a women's health nurse practitioner or a certified nurse midwife.
Women’s health nurse practitioners play an invaluable role in offering holistic, comprehensive, and culturally competent health services across the U.S. One of the most contentious issues in the advanced practice nursing community is whether or not a practitioner should be authorized to work to the full extent of his or her education and training.