How Do I Become a Women's Health Nurse Practitioner?

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A women’s health nurse practitioner (WHNP) can be an extremely valuable resource and care provider for women throughout their lives – from adolescence to later years. To borrow a phrase from the Vanderbilt University WHNP program, these nursing professionals provide well-woman care in addition to “normal and high-risk prenatal management, family planning, fertility and uro-gynecology.”

A women’s health nurse practitioner often operates completely independently of a physician, either in private practice, at a hospital, birthing center, or a women’s clinic. These highly trained individuals are able to provide care for acute and chronic issues that are specific to women, and are attuned to the best practices in preventative medicine as well as health promotion. In most states, nurse practitioners can even write prescriptions, making them entirely independent and offering a high degree of flexibility and responsibility when it comes to their employment.

In order to become a women’s health nurse practitioner, there are certain educational standards that must be met, and prospective WHNPs must also complete specialized clinical experience in their chosen field.

Certifications and Requirements to Become a Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner

In order to become a women’s health nurse practitioner, you must already have a background in nursing. Most WHNP programs require that prospective students become Registered Nurses (RNs) before applying to an advanced program. RN requirements vary from state to state, but they generally require at minimum an associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) and in some cases a bachelor’s of science degree in nursing (BSN), successfully passing the NCLEX-RN exam, and registering with the state.

RNs are technically eligible for many nurse practitioner programs without additional experience, but most nurses spend a few years in clinical practice before pursuing the Master’s or Doctoral degree necessary to become a nurse practitioner. In fact, according to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP), RNs spend an average of 10 years in practice before pursuing their advanced degree. This additional clinical experience can also help in determining the ideal specialization, such as women’s health.

In addition to being an RN and holding an advanced nursing degree, WHNPs must complete the Women’s Health Care Nurse Practitioner certification from the National Certification Corporation (NCC). The computer-based exam currently requires a fee of $325 and must be completed within 8 years of graduation from an eligible advanced program.

As with any nursing specialty, there are also some personality traits that can be helpful – if not required – when it comes to the WHNP career. While all nurses should be compassionate individuals, this might be even more important when it comes to women’s health care. Many of the health issues that women face, particularly surrounding childbearing and fertility can be particularly stressful and emotional. In addition, the use of nurse practitioners has greatly expanded due to a lack of health care providers in rural areas as well as low income regions, which are often more culturally diverse. This means women’s health nurse practitioners would do well to learn about and respect other cultures, and to learn other languages when possible.

Steps to Becoming a Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner

Not every nurse will follow the same steps to becoming a women’s health nurse practitioner, but this is the outline for the career path for the majority of nurses working in this particular specialty.

  1. Undergraduate: First, a nurse must complete an undergraduate degree in nursing, either an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN) or better yet a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). While not all advanced nurses have an undergraduate nursing degree, choosing instead to focus on a more general topic like biology or chemistry, earning an ADN is the fastest way to become an RN (in some states) and earning a BSN is the most surefire way to become an RN (in all states). A bachelor’s program in nursing requires extensive science courses as well as clinical experience. For those who want to become nurses but are not quite prepared to enter such a rigorous program out of high school, community college courses can be a good stepping stone. Students should be sure that their undergraduate nursing program is properly accredited for the state in which they wish to practice, since that can have an impact on licensing eligibility.
  2. RN: Upon completing an undergraduate degree, students must become registered nurses. The specific requirements for licensing differs from state to state but there are similarities. Most states require applicants to undergo a basic criminal background check, followed by a licensing exam that demonstrates the nurse’s knowledge and skill. The NCLEX is the national licensing exam as provided by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN). It is important to note that applicants must apply through their state board of nursing for an Authorization to Test (ATT) before applying to take the NCLEX. Upon completion of this exam and the background check, nurses should be awarded their RN license and will be able to practice.
  3. Clinical Practice: Clinical experience is highly preferred for applicants to all nurse practitioner programs, including WHNP programs. Nurses may work in different specializations for any number of years before finding one that suits them. Those nurses that settle on women’s health and want to pursue an advanced degree for that specialty can start applying to programs at any time after receiving their RN license.
  4. Advanced Degree: To become a nurse practitioner in the women’s health field, nurses must obtain either a Master’s of Science degree in Nursing or a Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree. Students can choose to attend a program specifically focused on women’s health, such as those offered at Duke, Vanderbilt, or the University of Cincinnati. The length of this type of program depends on the degree being sought as well as the time commitment of the nurse. Many RNs continue to work full or part time while pursuing their advanced degree, which can make things take a little longer. Some programs also offer online options for flexibility in scheduling.
  5. Certification: Once the degree is complete, nurses can sit for the Women’s Health Care Nurse Practitioner certification exam from NCC and start looking for work in this specialized and rewarding field.