There is an increasing demand for quality healthcare services in the US, a phenomena brought about in part by Affordable Care Act’s expansion of insurance coverage and the aging Baby Boomer population. Concurrent with this growing market has come an explosion in opportunities for nurse practitioners, including women's health nurse practitioners (WHNPs).
The National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties (NONPF) has partnered with various organizations to explicate the core competencies in the WHNP profession, which include promoting health and preventing disease in women throughout their lives; paying thought to age, culture, and psychosocial considerations in the development of treatment plans for gender-related needs (e.g., contraception, pregnancy, UTIs, STIs, menopause, etc); performing physical exams and other procedures (e.g., IUD insertion, pap smears, endometrial biopsies); giving prenatal and postnatal care to women of a childbearing age; liaising with other healthcare professionals to address varied health problems of patients; educating women on optimal health practices; promoting access to health services for women; and even giving treatment to men with specific reproductive health needs or gender-identity explorations.
The American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP 2018) found that 3.4 percent of the more than 248,000 NPs across the country work in women’s health and while the future demand for these specialized practitioners is assured, there are some significant hurdles to clear. According to Nurse Practitioners in Women’s Health (NPWH)—a professional advocacy and resource organization—the number of WHNP programs has been declining or being replaced by generalist NP programs, particularly in states which have been closing women’s healthcare clinics or decreasing the funding available for these initiatives. While this phenomena is alarming, there is also some bright news: the trend toward online education is engendering new opportunities for aspiring WHNPs. There has been a slow but steady proliferation of online WHNP programs over the past decade. Prospective WHNPs are advised to seek out online graduate programs accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing, Inc. (ACEN) in order to qualify for national certification through the National Certification Corporation (NCC).
While a master of science in nursing (MSN) has traditionally been the route for WHNPs, there’s a growing trend toward pursuing the terminal degree in the discipline: the doctor of nursing practice (DNP). In fact, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (2018) reports that these practice-focused degrees are a response to the nation’s complex healthcare issues, concern for patient safety, and shortages of medical personnel. Additionally, nursing is following the long tradition of other medical disciplines in calling for doctoral degrees at the highest echelons of practice (e.g., PsyD, MD, DDS, etc). As of April 2018, there were 303 DNP programs across all 50 states and the District of Columbia—including some online WHNP-DNPs profiled below—which are increasing the standard of preparation for NPs across all subfields.
Read on to discover the rich variety of academic pathways available in online WHNP programs (e.g., ADN-to-MSN, BSN-to-MSN, BSN-to-DNP, etc), including the standard application prerequisites, coursework, and how to pursue national certification through the NCC.
Between 2017 and 2018, NursePractitionerSchools.com gathered information from more than 640 online NP programs based at institutions around the country at the MSN, post-master’s certificate, and DNP levels. To qualify as an “online program,” students had to travel to campus less than 10 times throughout the duration of their studies. These programs are ranked by total (not annual) cost of tuition for out-of-state students, and have included cost-per-credit calculations as well.
While the utmost efforts were made to ensure the accuracy of this data, please note that tuition figures are continually evolving. Also, while this table includes only MSN and DNP programs, a majority of the included schools offer post-master’s certificate options as well. Interested students with questions not answered here are encouraged to contact program coordinators directly. To add programs or correct existing information, please contact us.
In order to qualify for online WHNP programs, admissions committees typically call for the following from candidates:
While the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) or Miller Analogies Test (MAT) aren’t typically necessary for online WHNP program applications, there are exceptions such as the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Sometimes this requirement can be waived for applicants with especially high GPAs or following a portfolio review. Applicants are advised to contact program coordinators for details.
In online WHNP programs at the MSN level (including post-master’s certificates), coursework may include:
In online DNP programs, much of the coursework is shared among the NP specializations and classes may include:
In addition to distance-based coursework, online WHNP students are expected to complete clinical hours at preceptor sites close to their homes. This typically ranges from 600 (MSN-WHNP) to 1,000 (DNP-WHNP) hours.
Finally, to learn more about who teaches some of these classes, check out the NursePractitionerSchools.com piece on 20 outstanding WHNP professors.
Prior to applying to an online WHNP program, students are cautioned to verify two things: a program’s state authorization clearance and its accreditation status.
“State authorization” is a term referring to the ability of a university in one state to offer distance-based education to residents of another state. The largest agreement in place is the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA), a compact between all states except for California and Massachusetts.
Many colleges have state authorization pages on their sites, such as Duke University which details its “state requirements for distance education,” noting some restrictions for students residing in Wyoming, North Dakota, New York, Louisiana, and Alabama. Other schools such as the University of South Alabama (USA) advise residents of certain states to contact the advising office prior to enrollment to ensure eligibility. Overall, students are advised to reach out to program coordinators if this important information isn’t readily available on the school websites.
Lastly, as mentioned in the introduction, verifying a program’s accreditation status is also crucial in order to qualify a person for WHNP certification through the National Certification Corporation (NCC). The two main entities for accrediting online graduate education in nursing are the aforementioned Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing, Inc. (ACEN). For a detailed examination of how programs are evaluated, check out the organizations’ websites or the accreditation section of the online nurse practitioner programs page.
There are a few online WHNP programs open to applicants with an associate degree in nursing (ADN) or a non-nursing bachelor’s degree.
The University of South Alabama (USA) provides an online WHNP program for qualifying candidates with ADN or bachelor’s degrees in non-nursing disciplines. There are 19 prerequisite courses which must be completed prior to enrollment, and this distance-based RN-to-MSN program is divided into two phases: the first phase comprises 31 semester hours to earn the BSN, and these hours must be completed at USA. Phase two is the “graduate phase,” where coursework is delivered online and includes core WHNP-MSN classes such as health assessment, pathophysiology, community health, and health promotion & disease prevention in women’s health. Additionally, WHNP candidates are required to attend an on campus orientation between the summer and fall semesters.
Regis College provides an online ADN-to-MSN program in the WHNP field which can be completed in as few as three years. Regis has specialized instruction on how to provide primary healthcare to women, assisting with family planning, performing physical examinations, diagnosing illness, and providing prenatal care, among other key areas of instruction. Notably, Regis offers ample opportunity for specialization within women’s health, boasting a range of subdisciplines including cardiovascular care, oncology, childbirth & delivery issues, puberty & menopause, and reproductive health, among others.
Vanderbilt University also has an online ADN-to-MSN program in women’s health in a modified distance learning format. In addition to 630 clinical hours, students complete online courses such as advanced health assessment & clinical reasoning, advanced pharmacotherapeutics, and women’s health in advanced practice care. Please note that students are required to travel to campus for blocks of on-site learning: four times in the fall, three times in the spring, and two times in the summer.
While the numbers of credits and clinical hours required will vary by school and a student’s prior academic work, the online WHNP RN-to-MSN programs typically take three years of full-time work to complete. To learn about more options and specialties at this level, please visit the online NP programs page.
A majority of online WHNP programs require at least a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) prior to enrollment. Please note that the following programs can also be taken as online post-master’s certificates for NPs seeking to change specialties or to add a new one.
For example, Duke University offers a competitive online WHNP programs in both part- and full-time formats. Its 45 credit-hours include instruction in population health in a global society, advanced physiology across the lifespan, physical assessment & diagnostics reasoning, and clinical pharmacology. Additionally, online MSN candidates are required to complete 672 clinical hours and intensive, on-campus sessions in North Carolina once per semester. Not only does Duke offer the only WHNP program in NC, but it also provides opportunities to specialize in cardiology, endocrinology, HIV/AIDS, oncology, and orthopedics.
The University of Cincinnati (UC) provides a 100 percent online BSN-to-MSN program in women’s health. Classes include advanced women’s health; healthcare policy; primary care of episodic illnesses in women; theoretical basis for clinical reasoning; advanced reproductive dynamics; women’s health in contemporary society; and a capstone project. This program typically takes two years of full-time study to complete.
Vanderbilt University has online BSN-to-MSN programs for both women’s health and a dual program (adult-gerontology primary care and women’s health). In its esteemed dual program, students take online courses such as adult-gerontology primary care; advanced health assessment applications for the WHNP; scientific underpinnings for advanced nursing practice; pathophysiologic concepts; essential procedures for the primary care provider; and women’s healthcare issues. Similar to the RN-to-MSN option profiled above, students are required to travel to campus up to four times per semester for on-site intensive trainings.
Additional outstanding online MSN programs for WHNPs are offered at Frontier Nursing University (profiled below), Drexel University, Thomas Jefferson University, and Georgetown University. Please note that this pathway typically takes two years of full-time study or three years of part-time study, although timelines may vary by school and a student’s prior coursework. Check out the online programs page to discover other online BSN-to-MSN program options.
For NPs who have their MSN in another specialty, there’s an array of accredited, online WHNP post-MSN certificate programs. In addition to the schools profiled above, here is an overview of featured distance-based WHNP programs at the certificate level:
Frontier Nursing University not only boasts an outstanding online WHNP-MSN program with the option to complete a companionate DNP, but it also provides this advanced pathway to certificate candidates as well. In its distance-based certificate program, FNU offers 40-49 credits of classes which can be completed in 12-21 months, depending on whether a student is part- or full-time. Online coursework includes classes such as primary care of women; midwifery care during pregnancy; WHNP care during postpartum; and complex care of the childbearing woman. Notably, FNU requires only two on-campus sessions in Hyden, KY—opportunities not only for intensive learning, but also to connect with colleagues.
The University of Nebraska Medical Center also provides an online WHNP post-master’s certificate with classes such as acute care & health promotion in women; advanced women’s & children’s health; chronic care & health promotion; pathophysiology for advanced practice nurses; and applied pharmacology.
Finally, the University of South Alabama (USA) has a six semester (two year) online WHNP certificate to qualified candidates. With minimal campus visitation required, USA students take classes including advanced women’s health NP nursing (I-IV); pharmacology for advanced practice nurses; and advanced nursing assessment. Please note that the plans of study vary by prior coursework completed, and some credits from previous programs may be transferred.
There are additional post-master’s certificates in this specialty available at Drexel University and Vanderbilt University. Also, similar to other programs, timelines to completion of the post-master’s WHNP certificate may vary and range from 18 months (full-time) to 21 months (part-time).
As mentioned in the introduction, the new standard of academic preparation for WHNPs is moving toward the doctor of nursing practice (DNP), the terminal degree of the discipline, and there’s a growing array of distance-based options for these practice-focused degrees.
One of pioneers in distance-based NP education—particularly in women’s health—is the aforementioned Frontier Nursing University. For BSN-prepared candidates, there are 76 required credits of coursework (53 didactic + 23 clinical). In its renowned online DNP program in women’s health, FNU’s courses include pharmacology for advanced practice across the lifespan; primary care of women; role of the nurse practitioner; complex care of the childbearing woman; and translating evidence to advanced practice; nurse practitioner as educator; and leadership & health policy. This program is divided into 11 week course terms with two week breaks in between. To learn more about this school’s faculty and administrative staff, check out NPS’s interviews with Dr. Lisa Chappell and Dr. Tonya Nicholson.
The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) features an online BSN-to-DNP program for WHNPs which requires a total of six campus visits. Classes include translating evidence into practice; healthcare systems for advanced nursing practice; evidence-based practice strategies; population health in advanced practice nursing; assessment & diagnostic reasoning; and several focused courses in women’s health. Furthermore, UAB provides specialization in the areas of forensic nursing and palliative care in the WHNP field. This program takes nine semesters (full-time) or 12 semesters (part-time)—including summers—to complete.
The University of Utah provides an online WHNP BSN-to-DNP program requiring only two campus visits per semester. Ideal for students in the intermountain west, highlights of UT’s WHNP program include a high faculty-to-student ratio, in-state tuition for students residing in Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education states, and the option to make the DNP dual-focus by adding nurse-midwifery. Classes include quality improvement in healthcare; postpartum & newborn management; ambulatory care and inpatient SIM for women’s health; and leadership & advocacy. This program takes eight semesters to complete (nine for the dual-focus), and is only available in a full-time format.
The online BSN-to-DNP pathway typically takes three to four years to complete, although plans of study vary based on school and a student’s prior coursework completed. There are additional hybrid-online WHNP-DNP programs at Arizona State University and the University of Minnesota. To learn more about DNP programs in this pathway, check out the online NP schools page.
For MSN-prepared WHNPs seeking the most advanced preparation in their field, pursuing an online DNP can be an appropriate pathway. Please note that at the MSN-to-DNP level, much of the distance-based coursework is shared among NP specialties, while clinical hours and scholarly projects (i.e., capstones) are generally completed in one’s area of expertise.
Kent State University offers an online DNP for WHNPs with classes such as advanced leadership in healthcare, clinical analytics, population health, and organizational systems. Taking only five semesters to complete, Kent State’s program is 100 percent online and connects DNP candidates with experienced faculty advisors to complete original scholarly projects in women’s health.
Duke University also has a distance-based MSN-to-DNP program, requiring one campus visit per semester. With a fall start date, Duke’s 5-6 semester program has unique classes in DNP fundamentals including quantitative methods for evaluating healthcare practices; applied finance & budget planning; data-driven healthcare improvement; transforming the nation’s healthcare; and locating & appraising.
Please note that since online MSN-to-DNP programs typically share coursework regardless of one’s NP specialty, they may accommodate a variety of backgrounds, including practitioners in women’s health. Also, the distance-based DNP programs typically take two years (full-time) to three years (part-time) to complete, although similar to other points of entry, coursework may vary based on a student’s prior credits completed.
For graduates of online WHNP programs, there is one major national certification in women’s health available through the National Certification Corporation (NCC). In order to qualify, candidates must have:
Additionally, candidates must pass a comprehensive exam on women’s health within eight years of graduation from their program. The exam comprises up to 175 questions in the following areas:
This three-year certification must be maintained following a “continuing competency assessment,” which determines the number of continuing education (CE) hours required (between 10 and 45). To learn more, please check out the NCC Continuing Competency Initiative Guide or the how to become a WHNP page.