What is a nurse practitioner, and how can you become one?

Last updated: April 21, 2024
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Eleana Bowman
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What is a nurse practitioner, and how can you become one?
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Nurse practitioners can diagnose and treat patients. They have to complete more education than a nurse but less than a physician.

To work in this role, you'll need to be committed to ongoing training. You should be passionate about helping others and interested in a long-term career in healthcare.

Demand for nurse practitioners is higher than average. By 2031, it's predicted that there'll be 40% more jobs than there were as of 2021.

Want to know more? If you're interested in working as a nurse practitioner, you'll have to meet the minimum educational requirements. And then there is your licensing and clinical placement.

We'll cover all of these topics in this guide. Plus, we'll chat about the top duties and the median nurse practitioner salary.

What is a nurse practitioner?

Before we jump into our step-by-step guide to becoming a nurse practitioner, here's a rundown of the job:

Nurse practitioners are licensed health professionals. 47% work in private practices, but you'll also find them in hospitals and outpatient care centers.

They can do many of the same tasks as physicians, including administering tests, making diagnoses, prescribing treatments, and creating preventative healthcare plans.

However, in some states, nurse practitioners need to be supervised by a physician. Some nurse practitioners also have a specialty, such as family health or critical care.

Nurse practitioners can work independently, either full-time or part-time. Depending on the job, shift work may be required. For example, some healthcare settings are open 24/7, every day of the year.

What's the difference between a nurse practitioner and a nurse? The former can do everything a nurse can do and more. They may suppose nurses with mentoring and supervision.

Nurses, on the other hand, aren't permitted to diagnose patients or prescribe medications.

What does a nurse practitioner do?

What do these health professionals do? Here are some of the most common daily duties:

1. Diagnose patients

Nurse practitioners talk to patients and perform diagnostic tests. They ask patients questions about their history, symptoms, and any current medications they're taking.

There are a range of tests nurse practitioners can do to diagnose illness, injury, and disease. For example, they may order an x-ray, urine sample, or blood test.

They can also perform physical exams, take blood pressure, and weigh patients. When they have all the information they need, they can make an accurate diagnosis. Some patients may need to be referred to a specialist, such as a surgeon.

They keep accurate records and update patient details during each appointment.

2. Treat illnesses and injuries

Nurse practitioners can treat a range of illnesses and injuries.

They provide care to patients in a variety of settings, so ‌illnesses can vary. For example, if they work in a family practice, the nurse practitioner may treat children for common short-term health conditions, such as ear infections, respiratory issues, or stomach cramps.

A nurse practitioner who works in emergency care, however, will be more likely to see patients with broken bones or mental health concerns.

After they create a treatment plan, the nurse practitioner may ask the patient to come back for a follow-up appointment.

3. Prescribe medications

Patients may need different medications as part of their treatment. For example, a treatment plan may include antibiotics, antihistamines, or pain relief.

As healthcare providers, nurse practitioners may prescribe and administer medications. There are different types of drugs, including capsules, liquids, topical medications, injections, and inhalers. Nurse practitioners use their clinical knowledge to make the right choice.

Keep in mind that there can be different rules between states that limit the types of medications they can prescribe. In some locations, nurse practitioners can only prescribe drugs under the supervision of a physician.

4. Educate patients

Nurse practitioners provide comprehensive care. While treating injuries and illness is important, so is prevention.

Part of a nurse practitioner's role is to educate patients. For example, they can teach people how to look after themselves at home. They can also flag any issues before they get worse. With a few behavior or lifestyle changes, a patient's health may improve.

Nurse practitioners can share resources, create personalized patient care plans, and provide health education to their communities.

5. Collaborate with other healthcare professionals

Healthcare professionals need to support each other. Multiple specialists need to work together to provide a high level of care.

Nurse practitioners can collaborate with a range of people in the healthcare field. For example, they may work with physicians, nurse midwives, dietitians, dermatologists, and surgeons.

They build relationships and write referrals for their patients. Let's say a person presents with a broken leg, for instance. The nurse practitioner would refer them to an orthopedic surgeon.

How much does a nurse practitioner make?

The median salary for a nurse practitioner in the United States is $109,820 per year or $52.80 per hour.

Those in the lowest percentile make an average annual wage of $81,410, while top earners can make as much as $152,160.

The average salary can vary depending on where you work. For example, nurse practitioners in outpatient services have an average annual salary of ​​$119,920, while those working in physician's offices make around $108,930.

Where you live can also impact your salary. The top-paying state for nurse practitioners is California, where the average salary is $138,660 per year.

Next on the list is Washington, where nurse practitioners make around $126,920 per year. Then there's Hawaii, where the average annual salary is $124,000.

In New Jersey, nurse practitioners make around $123,810 per year, and in Minnesota, the average yearly salary is $122,850.

How to become a nurse practitioner

Want a nurse practitioner job? Before you can start work, you'll need to complete the following six steps:

1. Meet the minimum requirements

To get started, you'll need a high school diploma or equivalent. Note that some colleges and universities require a minimum grade point average (GPA). Still in high school? Taking health and science subjects will be beneficial.

There can also be minimum age requirements for nursing school. For example, you may need to be over 18 or 21.

Think about whether you'd be a good fit for a career in nursing. Are you compassionate? Do you enjoy working with people? Are you interested in healthcare? Speak with others in the field to learn more about the job.

2. Get a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree

You can't jump straight into a nurse practitioner program. First, you'll need to complete a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BNS) degree. This program takes around four years — and even longer for part-time students.

Your degree will cover a range of topics, including health promotion, anatomy and physiology, ethics, statistics, and psychology.

Once you graduate, you may decide to start work as a registered nurse (RN). You'll just need to get a nursing license by passing the NCLEX-RN exam.

3. Get clinical experience

You'll need to complete clinical hours during your undergraduate degree. This hands-on training will give you an opportunity to improve your skills.

Clinical residencies are usually done in a hospital setting. Medical professionals will supervise student nurses as they work with actual patients.

Students get to practice what they've been taught and experience a fast-paced healthcare environment. They'll learn about routines and get exposed to a diverse range of health issues.

During this period, you'll be able to network with other healthcare professionals.

Getting to know others in the field can help you in the future. For example, if you become a nurse practitioner, someone you've worked with during your residency may give you a reference.

4. Complete an advanced degree

When you've finished your undergraduate nursing degree and clinical placements, you'll need to keep studying.

The next step is to enroll in an advanced degree program. The most common option is a master's degree, which takes around two to three years to complete. Look for a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program.

Some students choose to study part-time while they work as a nurse.

If you want to continue your learning and expand your job opportunities, you might want to enroll in a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP).

Most nurse practitioners have a specialty, and you'll need to consider this before you start your advanced degree. Popular options include family health, neonatal care, mental health, emergency medicine, women's health, and adult primary care.

5. Pass the National Nurse Practitioner Certification Board Exam

The last piece of the puzzle is to get a certification. This is a requirement in most states, and it allows you to work as a licensed nurse practitioner.

Different organizations offer certifications. The option you choose will depend on your location and specialty. Here are a few examples:

  • American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP)

  • American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)

  • National Certification Program (NCC)

To complete this process, you'll usually need to pass an exam. This may be online or in-person and will come with an application fee. If you don't get a passing score, you'll need to retake the test.

There may also be other certification requirements. Some organizations will expect you to complete ongoing training and professional development, and you'll have to pay a yearly fee to keep your license active.

6. Start your career

When you reach this step, you'll have an advanced degree, and you'll also have passed a national certification exam.

Now, it's time to dive into your nurse practitioner career. You can start by browsing nurse practitioner roles on our job board. If you have a specialty, you can narrow down your search. For example, you can browse family nurse practitioner jobs or mental health nurse practitioner jobs.

Make sure you update your resume. Take a look at our healthcare resume guide to create a professional document. Don't forget to include any nursing experience and your educational background.

You'll need to keep training to stay on top of industry trends. Focus on upskilling and enrolling in both online programs and in-person training sessions. If you work hard, you may get opportunities for promotion into leadership roles.

What skills do nurse practitioners need?

If you want to become ‌a nurse practitioner, you'll need a range of skills. Many of these are transferable and can be gained from other roles.

Nurse practitioners need to speak with patients and their families, and they work with other healthcare professionals, including doctors, nurses, and physiotherapists.

You'll need strong communication skills to provide the best patient care possible. Confidence, positive body language, and listening skills are all on the must-have list.

Nurse practitioners need to be empathetic and always work with integrity and confidentiality. Computer skills and accurate typing skills are also essential.

Manual dexterity is another top skill, as nurse practitioners use their hands for tasks such as blood tests, physical examinations, and injections. With good hand-eye coordination, these health professionals will be less likely to make mistakes.

You'll need clinical skills, critical thinking skills, and medical knowledge, and you'll develop these things through a nursing program.

Where to get a job as a nurse practitioner

When it's time to start work, you can look for licensed nurse practitioner positions on our job board. You can add your location to see what's available close to home.

And don't forget to sign up for a free Jobcase account. It's quick and easy, and you can create a profile, set up job alerts, and chat with others in our community discussions.

Becoming a nurse practitioner

Think a nurse practitioner career could be the right choice for you? You can expect competitive salaries and plenty of job opportunities.

There are a few nurse practitioner requirements that you'll need to check off. First, you'll need to get a degree in nursing with clinical hours. Next, you'll need a master's or doctorate degree.

And before you can start work, you'll need a certification.

These healthcare providers have a wide range of duties. For example, they diagnose, treat, and educate patients, collaborate with other health professionals, and prescribe medications.

In some states, nurse practitioners need supervision from a physician.

You'll need a range of skills and other qualities to succeed in this career. These include interpersonal skills, manual dexterity, integrity, and clinical skills.

Not quite ready to go back to school? Check out our job board to see who is hiring now. And we have more guides like this one in our resource center.

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