What Is a Nurse Practitioner?

What Is a Nurse Practitioner?

A type of advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), nurse practitioners (NP) provide primary and specialty healthcare to patients across the lifespan. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the NP profession may see a 45% job growth rate between 2019 and 2029, much faster than the average for other careers.

Job responsibilities vary by specialization but include managing patient care, prescribing medications, diagnosing and treating illnesses and injuries, and ordering tests. NPs also offer patient education and counseling.

Nurse practitioners need at least a master of science in nursing (MSN) degree, advanced clinical training, state licensure, and national certification.

Some popular NP specializations include family health, pediatric health, women’s health, and psychiatric/mental health. Nurse practitioners may work for hospitals, nursing homes, private practices, and clinics.

All states license NPs and regulate their work. Some states let NPs practice independently, while others require them to work with another healthcare professional or under physician supervision. Nurse practitioners need at least a master of science in nursing (MSN) degree, advanced clinical training, state licensure, and national certification.

This page explores how to become a NP, outlines career and salary expectations, and covers daily responsibilities in this role.

Areas of Specialization for NPs

Popular nurse practitioner specializations include women’s health, family health, and neonatal health. We explain these and other specialties below. Licensure and national certification requirements vary by state and specialization.

Description Required Education Licensure and Certification Requirements Career Titles Within This Specialization
Women’s Health A women’s health specialization trains students to provide primary preventative care to women across the lifespan. MSN RN; NP state licensure; WHNP-BC certification from NCC Women’s health nurse practitioner
Psychiatric/Mental Health A psychiatric/mental health specialization prepares NPs to assess patients and provide medication management. MSN RN; NP state licensure; PMHNP-BC certification from ANCC Psychiatric nurse practitioner
Pediatric/Child Health A pediatric/child health specialization focuses on care for patients from birth to age 21. MSN RN; NP state licensure; CPNP-AC or CPNP-PC certification from PNCB Pediatric nurse practitioner
Family Health A family health specialization prepares graduates to provide primary care to people across the lifespan, including children. MSN RN; NP state licensure; FNP-BC certification from ANCC or FNP-C certification from AANPBC Family nurse practitioner
Oncology An oncology specialization teaches nurses to treat cancer patients. MSN RN; NP state licensure; AOCNP certification from ONCC Oncology nurse practitioner
Neonatal Health A neonatal specialization prepares students to work in neonatal intensive care units with premature infants and newborns with health conditions. MSN RN; NP state licensure; NNP-BC certification from NCC Neonatal nurse practitioner

Explore NP Specializations and Subspecializations

History of Nurse Practitioners

The first nurse practitioner program started in 1965 in Colorado. That same year, Medicare and Medicaid expansion increased the number of Americans who qualified for coverage and could seek primary healthcare.

In 2018, an estimated 56,000 NPs practiced in the U.S. The rise of the NP profession came in response to the lack of primary care physicians available to meet this need.

Nurse practitioners stand out from other healthcare providers by looking at patient health and well-being from a whole-person perspective.

Nurse practitioners serve an important role in helping to address the continuing primary care shortage, lowering healthcare costs, and improving patient satisfaction. Nurse practitioners stand out from other healthcare providers by looking at patient health and well-being from a whole-person perspective.

Throughout the profession’s history, NPs have advocated for policy changes to improve healthcare and access, particularly for children, low-income individuals, and other marginalized groups.

NPs need at least an MSN to qualify for licensure. However, the profession increasingly prefers the doctor of nursing practice (DNP). The American Association of Colleges of Nursing recommends the DNP as the most appropriate terminal degree for nurse practitioners.

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What Do Nurse Practitioners Do?

NPs’ scope of work varies depending on their specialization area, the population they serve, and the state in which they practice. One of their main roles within the healthcare field is to address the shortage of physicians and bring down healthcare costs.

NPs provide primary and specialty healthcare, including the diagnosis and treatment of illnesses and injuries, along with patient education and counseling. They also use their advanced clinical training to prescribe medications, oversee and perform minor procedures, plus order laboratory tests.

NP specializations usually correspond with patient populations. For example, pediatric nurse practitioners work with patients from birth to age 21, and women’s healthcare nurse practitioners serve women. Certain states let NPs establish their own private practices, but regulations vary.

Nurse practitioners may experience challenges like long hours, high levels of stress, and the threat of burnout. COVID-19 has been especially hard for nurses, with some reported rates of burnout quadrupling six months into the pandemic.

Some of the key skills that can lead to successful nurse practitioners careers are listed below.

Key Soft Skills for NPs

  • Empathy and Compassion: Nurse practitioners need both of these traits to understand and build relationships with patients and their families. Compassionate and empathetic nurses who see their patients as whole people may offer improved patient care.
  • Communication Skills: Because NPs spend so much time explaining medical diagnoses and treatments to patients and their families, they need clear, concise, and empathetic communication skills. Working with other healthcare professionals also requires good communication skills.
  • Interpersonal Skills: Nurse practitioners with excellent interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence gain patient trust. Establishing and maintaining relationships with other healthcare workers can also improve patient care.
  • Critical-thinking Skills: Critical-thinking skills help NPs provide better care, improve patient safety, and recognize changes in a patient’s medical status. It can also lead to innovation and better decision making.

Key Hard Skills for NPs

  • Basic Emergency and Urgent Care Skills: A solid grasp of basic emergency and urgent care skills allows NPs to quickly assess and address medical issues. Examples include dressing wounds, providing IV therapy, assessing the respiratory system, and chest tube management.
  • Vital Sign Monitoring and Checking: Knowing how to monitor and check vital signs, including pulse rate, body temperature, blood pressure, and respiration rate helps NPs find and monitor medical problems.
  • Patient Education: Skilled NPs provide health education and counseling to patients and their families. This can help them understand diagnoses and treatments, make lifestyle changes to improve health conditions and learn how to provide at-home care.
  • Technology Skills: As technology’s role in the medical system grows, nurse practitioners use tech to help diagnose, monitor, and treat patients. They also need technical skills to complete medical forms accurately.

A Day in the Life of a Nurse Practitioner

A typical day in the life of an NP varies significantly depending on the specialization area. Potential job tasks include documenting patients’ medical histories, performing head-to-toe assessments/exams, diagnosing health issues, and creating a list of differential diagnoses.

A Day in the Life of a Nurse Practitioner

Nurse Practitioner Salary and Career Outlook

Nurse practitioners can expect an excellent career outlook and very competitive wages. The BLS projects a 45% job growth rate (much faster than average) for nurse practitioners between 2019 and 2029.

Compared to the average projected growth rate for all occupations of just 4%, it’s unlikely that qualified nurse practitioners will experience difficulty finding a job in the near future. NPs earned a median annual salary of $117,670 per year as of May 2020.

Factors influencing NP salaries include specialization, experience, education, and location. Keep reading for more about the salary and career outlook for nurse practitioners.

Nurse Practitioner

Annual Median Salary


Source: BLS

Learn More About Salary and Job Forecast for Nurse Practitioners

How to Become an NP

Becoming a nurse practitioner takes a long time and requires hard work. Most NPs start their careers by earning a four-year bachelor of science in nursing, getting an RN license, and gaining professional on-the-job experience.

Next, they earn an MSN or DNP with a specialization in their desired area of practice. After completing a graduate nursing program, prospective NPs apply for state licensure. Depending on their specialty and state regulations, they may also need to earn a national certification in their area of specialization.

See below for detailed information on becoming a nurse practitioner and the best programs for prospective NPs.

This page includes step-by-step instructions for how to become an NP. Steps to Becoming a Nurse Practitioner Learn what to expect from a nurse practitioner degree program. Nurse Practitioner Degree Programs

Explore Required Certifications for NP Specializations

Compare MSNs with other available degrees.

Online Nurse Practitioner Programs
Discover how online NP programs differ from on-campus programs and how to apply to them.

Accelerated Online Nurse Practitioner Programs
Students interested in graduating quickly can look for and learn about accelerated online NP programs here.

BSN to DNP Programs
This page lists some of the best BSN-to-DNP programs and explains how to apply.

Online RN to MSN Programs
Explore some of the best RN-to-MSN programs and discover application requirements.

Online RN to DNP Programs
Find the top online RN-to-DNP programs and learn about prerequisites, typical courses, and how long it takes to graduate.

Online MSN to DNP Programs
This page includes the best online MSN-to-DNP programs. It also explains what to expect from a typical curriculum, prerequisites, and accreditation.

DNP Programs
Learn about a doctor of nursing practice degree, including what to expect and how to apply.

Online DNP Programs
Discover the differences with online DNP degrees, compare a list of online DNP programs, and find out how to apply.

Online Nursing Ph.D. Programs
Explore online nursing Ph.D. programs here. Learn about admission requirements, degree cost, and choosing the right school.

Online Post-Master’s NP Certificate
This page lists online post-masters NP certificates and explains how to apply.

Compare the various NP certifications. Nurse Practitioner Certification

Preparing for NP Certification
Learn how to prepare for a nurse practitioner certification exam here.

Resources for Nurse Practitioners

Professional Organizations for NPs

  • American Association of Nurse Practitioners

    A professional organization that advocates for nurse practitioners, AANP boasts more than 118,000 members. Joining offers benefits like hundreds of hours of free continuing education opportunities, professional development and networking resources, and discounts on conferences.

  • American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board

    The AANPCB offers nurse practitioner certifications, including family NP, adult-gerontology NP, and emergency NP credentials. Its website offers educational resources to prepare for certification and recertification.

  • American Nurses Association

    The premier organization for nurses in the U.S., ANA’s website includes a section for advanced practice nurses, including certification information, professional development opportunities, and educational resources.

  • National Council of State Boards of Nursing

    An independent organization that brings together nursing regulatory bodies, NCSBN helps develop nursing licensure exams. Nurse practitioners can find information about the NCLEX exam and educational resources on NCSBN’s website.

See More NP Organizations

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the role of an NP?

    NPs help expand access to healthcare by offering primary and specialty care to patients. Their specific job tasks vary by specialization.

  • Can an NP work as an RN?

    A type of advanced practice RN, NPs need an RN license to qualify for nurse practitioner school. NPs do not work as an RN, unless they were hired for that position.

  • What do nurse practitioners wear?

    NPs do not follow a strict dress code. They often wear business casual or dress clothes with a white lab coat. Some choose scrubs in a variety of colors. Because they work long hours on their feet, NPs need comfortable, sturdy shoes.

  • What can nurse practitioners do?

    The scope of duties for nurse practitioners varies depending on the state they practice in and their area of specialization. Full-practice states let NPs establish their own independent practices and work without a supervising physician. Other states give NPs much less autonomy.

Comparing NPs to Similar Careers

The pages below compare nurse practitioners to other types of healthcare professionals. We compare typical duties, education and licensing requirements, and common practice settings.

Reviewed By:

Portrait of Elizabeth M. Clarke, FNP, MSN, RN, MSSW

Elizabeth M. Clarke, FNP, MSN, RN, MSSW

Elizabeth Clarke (Poon) is a board-certified family nurse practitioner. A native of Boston, MA, Clarke tired of the cold and snowy winters and moved to Coral Gables, FL in order to complete her undergraduate degree in nursing at the University of Miami. After working for several years in the UHealth and Jackson Memorial Medical systems in the cardiac and ER units, Clarke returned to the University of Miami to complete her master of science in nursing. Since completing her MSN degree, Clarke has worked providing primary and urgent care to pediatric populations.

Elizabeth reviewed this page and is a paid member of Red Ventures Education’s freelance review network.

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