Like the idea of offering gynecological help or providing women with physical examinations? If women’s health, including sexual, reproductive, and menopausal issues, is of interest to you, you may want to consider a nurse practitioner career focused in women’s health. Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner programs, or WHNP programs, are open to students who have a bachelor’s degree in nursing, but also may be available to those with an associate degree in nursing. Students who have no nursing background, but a bachelor’s degree in another field, may also be able to apply to some NP programs.
In a WHNP program, students combine in-depth knowledge of pathophysiology, physiology, nursing and scientific theory, research and clinical experience with women’s health care. Students learn about promoting and maintaining health in their patients, how to address minor and acute health care problems, and how to provide gynecological, prenatal and post-partum care. After completing a WHNP program, students may want to seek certification through the National Certification Corporation – which does need to be sought within eight years – and which can help set them apart from others and provide validation of their specific women’s health skills.
Offered at the graduate level, women’s health NP programs generally take two to three years of full-time study to complete. Of course, students who have an associate degree in nursing or a bachelor’s degree in another field will have more coursework to cover. As well, many programs offer options for full- or part-time study and, in some cases, the opportunity to learn online, except for preceptorships or clinical hours that need to be done in-person! NPs who have a master’s degree in another specialty area can explore women’s health care at the post-master’s level or with a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree.
Upon graduation from one of the WHNP programs, you may be better able to expand your employment opportunities. Better yet, you should be trained to seek more management and leadership roles in areas like adult medicine, assisted living, family planning clinics, prenatal clinics, infertility clinics and women’s health clinics. As well, you could seek out unique career experiences through OB/BYN clinics, Native American reservations, Planned Parenthood, uro-gynecology practices, or even women’s prisons, reports the School of Nursing at Vanderbilt University. Now let’s find out more about applying to a WHNP program.
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Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner Prerequisites and Specializations
If you are applying for a WHNP program with a bachelor’s-level nursing degree and have licensure as an RN, you already have a head start on other nurses with an associate degree in nursing or those with a bachelor’s degree in another field. Still, you may find the admission requirements to be diverse, and you will have to complete a variety of them — and then need to wait to find out if you have been accepted. Requirements vary from school to school, but may include:
- Graduating from a bachelor’s-level nursing program that is accredited either through the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing, Inc. (ACEN).
- A bachelor’s GPA of at least 3.0
- An undergraduate course in statistics
- A recent score on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE)
- Official transcripts from all schools attended
- A statement of career goals
- Letters of reference, often three
- A current RN license
Some schools also may want you to have a certain number of years experience before applying. This is true at Duke University’s School of Nursing, in which it is recommended that RNs have at least one year of nursing experience as an RN under their belt. Note that some schools may be more lenient on certain requirements, where others may have little or no flexibility. Most require GRE scores, for example, but Duke, located in Durham, N.C., waives this requirement when applicants have an undergraduate GPA of 3.4 or more or a master’s degree or higher.
Entry Points into a Women’s Health NP Program
There are many different starting points for women’s health NP programs. These will vary from school to school, but as an example, Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tenn., has four different entry points. The options listed below for Vanderbilt can provide an example for what might be found at other schools.
- The first option, sometimes called “direct entry”, is for students with non-nursing bachelor’s degrees without any nursing experience. Before starting the master’s portion of their program, these students have to complete a variety of nursing prerequisites, generally lasting full-time for a year and including coursework such as Principles of Client-Centered Care and Pharmacology for Nursing Care. Clinical experiences are also part of this introductory year. This will be followed by three semesters worth of classes for their master’s degree.
- Students who are registered nurses with an associate degree or even diploma-based education can enter the MSN program at Vanderbilt by completing two-semesters of bachelor’s level classes. Afterward, they complete the three semesters of classes required for their master’s degree.
- A nurse who already has a bachelor’s degree can complete the master’s program within three semesters of coursework, but students who already have a master’s degree will need to have their program length determined through an analysis of their portfolio.
- Individuals who already have a master’s degree in nursing may want to continue on to a post-master’s certificate or if they have more time, to work toward their DNP. At Vanderbilt, the post-master’s can be completed as part of the DPN degree.
Online WHNP Programs
Keep in mind that many women’s health NP programs are set up differently, and some even provide options for online education. For example, at Vanderbilt University, students can learn through a modified distance learning program in the master’s part of their program. Yet, campus-based education is still required if they have pre-specialty courses to complete while preceptorship or practicum hours do need to be completed at a physical location.
Online education looks different at other schools. For example, at Frontier Nursing University, in Hyden, Kentucky, students first have to be on campus for a four-day orientation. From there, they complete the Level I and II courses of the program in their home community, including through Web-based education. These courses are 11 weeks each with two-week breaks in between. Afterward, they return to campus for eight days and then complete 675 hours of clinical hours in a practicum. Also, students can enter the program either with an associate or bachelor’s degree, showing that more than one entry point is available at this school, too. The associate degree usually takes an additional full-time year of study in advance of the two-year full-time program to complete the MSN. Both part-time and full-time learning are also available. While part-time study is an option at Frontier, keep in mind that it may not be an option at all schools.
At other schools, programs are structured differently, and it will be up to you to ask the pertinent questions that will make your education more meaningful. These questions might include:
- Are there different entry-points for starting?
- Can you attend part-time as well as full-time?
- Are there opportunities to take courses online?
- Can you complete your clinical hours in your community?
- Is a course included that helps you prepare for WHCN certification through the National Certification Corporation?
- Can you easily continue on to other advanced education programs, such as a post-master’s certificate in another specialty or a DNP?
Students can find many differently structured WHNP programs that help in meeting their personal goals. For example, at Frontier Nursing University, students are encouraged to “seamlessly” continue on to a companion DNP program that is just 17 more credits in length. This option may not be available at all schools. Also, some programs, such as Frontier, incorporate a course to help students prepare for women’s health NP certification. Students who are concerned about test-taking may find a course like this helpful.
Courses and Curriculum for Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner Programs
Students accepted into women’s health nurse practitioner programs generally take core coursework in the beginning part of their program. In fact, these courses comprise the beginning of many different NP programs and typically include advanced health assessment, advanced pathophysiology and advanced pharmacology, all separately taught. As students continue, they will take more classes related to women’s health. These classes could include:
- Midwifery Care during Pregnancy
- Primary Care for Women
- Postpartum Care
- Women’s Health Issues
- Scientific Underpinning for Advanced Nursing Practice
A practicum or preceptorship composed of on-site experiences, is often a requirement in a women’s health NP programs. These are usually completed towards the end of the master’s program or throughout it, in the case of multiple practicums, and provide students with broad practice experiences through which they synthesize the skills and knowledge they have obtained or are obtaining in their classes. There may be prerequisites to some of these mentored experiences, but students following the curriculum plans devised by their schools should be on-task to complete these hands-on experiences in a timely manner.
Some schools also offer concentrations in women’s health at the NP level. This is not true of all schools, however, so be sure to do your homework if you are interested in a specialization area. At San Diego State University, the Women’s Health and NP program include a specialization in nurse midwifery, a specialization in women’s health NP and a specialization in nurse midwifery and women’s health NP. This last combination program does require more curriculum components, of course. However, most WHNP programs in themselves are considered a specialty track and students may find other specialty areas, such as as Family Practitioner or Adult-Gerontology Acute Care, among the NP specialties available through a school.
Finally, some programs will specify whether their curriculum helps prepare students to sit for certification testing available through the National Certification Corporation. This can be helpful since certification is important to many. To seek this credentialing, students must be a current licensed RN in either the U.S. or Canada and successfully complete a formal NP program in neonatal or women’s health at the graduate level. This needs to result in either a master’s, post-master’s or DNP. Testing is offered at 250 test centers across the country or may be available, in some cases, at an employer site. As of June 2015, there was also a $325 testing fee. It is interesting to note that more than 75,000 people have been certificated through the NCC, in a variety of fields including electronic fetal monitoring, neonatal intensive care, maternal newborn nursing and others. However, through 2014, 15,977 applicants had been specifically awarded WHNC certification through the NCC.
WHNP Program Accreditation
It is in the best interest of the students to seek enrollment in a program accredited either through the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing, Inc. (ACEN) or the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE). The truth is that if you are going to invest the time and money to complete an advanced degree, you might as well enroll in an accredited program. Among other aspects, accredited programs help ensure that you are receiving the quality education to enable you to be knowledgeable in the field.
The University of St. Mary’s, in Leavenworth, Kansas, reports that there are numerous reasons for graduating from an accredited nursing program. These include better internship and residency opportunities as well as improved employment opportunities. Some states, like California, also require nurses to be graduates of accredited nursing programs if they decide to teach nursing education at the college level. As well, nurses who are interested in research need to be graduates of an accredited program to be able to quality for research initiatives and grants from nationwide organizations like the National Institutes of Health. Finally, accredited programs draw in better teachers, according to the University, which says: “[Accredited programs] also attract a higher level of instructors and support staff, so the entire level of education is generally superior to non-accredited schools.”
If that doesn’t convince you of the purposefulness of accreditation in nursing, consider how easy the two major accrediting agencies in nursing have made it to locate accredited nursing programs. In fact, you can search for schools accredited by the ACEN here on its website and others accredited through the CCNE here through its website. To top it off, you can even search for schools by state.
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