There are currently over 355,000 nurse practitioners (NP) licensed in the US, and in 2020, over 36,000 students graduated as NPs from academic programs. If you are currently working as a registered nurse (RN) and want to progress and open up more opportunities in your nursing career, you should consider embarking on a program of study. Making the transition from registered nurse to nurse practitioner involves studying for a postgraduate degree, with the most popular route being an RN to NP program. For most NP programs, you will need some experience working as an RN, usually for at least one year.
Many students opt for an online program for their RN to NP degree. Online programs are flexible and convenient and avoid the complication and cost of commuting or relocating for an on-campus program.
There are many reasons to choose to become a nurse practitioner. NP roles come with job satisfaction from making a positive difference, as well as being well compensated. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that as of May 2021, the national median annual salary for NPs was $120,680. Once qualified, people are happy to stay in the role of NP for some time, with the average length of practice in the role being 11 years. This is partly due to the wide variety of roles available to NPs.
When you decide to pursue an RN to NP degree, you will need to choose one of a range of specialization tracks.
Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP) degree
Specializing in psychiatric mental health will give you the knowledge and training you need to diagnose and treat a range of mental health conditions.
Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners work with individuals, families and groups. You may work with clients of all age groups, dealing with all sorts of substance abuse and mental health disorders. Alternatively, you may choose to work with specific populations, such as children or older people.
As a mental health NP, you will support people through a crisis or recovery, or help people to be able to live independently, improving their quality of life and encouraging them to become more in control of their condition. Some mental health NPs specialize in a particular area of mental health, such as substance abuse, eating disorders, depression, personality disorders or psychosis.
The responsibilities of a mental health NP will vary according to the role, but may include:
- Assessing the patient’s condition and discussing how their care will be delivered
- Building relationships with patients
- Preparing and maintaining patient records, care plans and risk assessments
- Ensuring medication is being administered correctly
- Monitoring the results of treatment
- Identifying whether patients are at risk of harming themselves or others
- Using de-escalation techniques to help patients manage their emotions
- Providing information and advice on support groups, activities and therapies
- Participating in therapy sessions as required
- Providing evidence-based therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Liaising with the families and carers of your patients to educate them about the patient’s mental health condition
- Ensuring compliance with relevant legal requirements
Settings where you can work as a mental health NP include:
- Hospital psychiatric wards
- Hospital outpatient departments
- Secure residential mental health units
- Community healthcare centers
- Clients’ homes
There are currently significant shortages of mental health nurses, and with demand for mental health services projected to grow rapidly over the next few years, there are plenty of career and progression opportunities in this field of healthcare.
Pediatric nurse practitioner (PNP) degree
The pediatric specialization equips students with the skills and knowledge to deliver primary care for minors, from infants to adolescents. A PNP degree will include coursework components such as anatomy, physiology and pharmacology, as well as a hands-on clinical placement to gain experience.
This program ensures that you have in-depth knowledge of medical issues specific to children – for example, how symptoms of an illness or condition can manifest differently in children, and how medication interacts differently with smaller and developing bodies. In some states, PNPs will be authorized to prescribe treatments, including medication for children and adolescents.
Pediatric NPs, or PNPs, need to have exceptional levels of compassion to care for young children while also managing the concerns and fears of their families. This can be particularly challenging for infants and very young children who may not understand what is happening and may even be too young to speak. PNPs also need to have good communication skills to discuss treatments with parents, since minors are not legally entitled to make these decisions for themselves. Discussions with parents may also involve educating parents in preventive strategies to keep their children healthy and agreeing on diagnostic tests to assess for conditions such as autism.
- Helping to prevent childhood illnesses
- Managing childhood illnesses and chronic conditions
- Conducting physical exams
- Ordering and interpreting results of laboratory and diagnostic tests
- Recommending and arranging tests for conditions such as autism
- Assessing health histories
- Developing and implementing treatment plans
- Providing emotional support to children and their families
- Preparing children for procedures and surgeries
- Evaluating patients for signs of abuse
Settings where PNPs work:
- General hospitals
- Children’s hospitals
- Specialty clinics, such as pediatric oncology clinics
- Health centers in schools
Working as a PNP can be challenging and emotionally demanding but also highly rewarding.
Family nurse practitioner (FNP) degree
The family nurse specialization prepares students with the clinical expertise to provide care for patients of all ages. According to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP), 69.7% of nurse practitioners specialize in family care.
Students will develop skills in illness management and the application of family nursing, as well as more general skills such as leadership and research best practices. Other responsibilities include:
- Building relationships with patients
- Liaising between physicians and patients
- Diagnosing health problems
- Assessing patients’ medical history
- Developing healthcare plans
- Considering whether medications need to be changed
- Evaluating blood tests and lab results
- Setting up programs to provide healthcare education
- Advocating for patient groups
In some states, FNPs are authorized to prescribe medication for patients without the supervision of a physician. In view of the shortage of physicians across the US, being able to prescribe medication is a very useful skill to avoid delays to a patient’s treatment.
FNPs may choose to pursue specializations in areas such as weight management and diabetes.
Family nurse practitioners work in a variety of settings:
- Doctor’s offices: supporting physicians
- Hospitals: some roles in acute care
- Outpatient clinics
- Higher education
Some states allow FNPs to operate a private practice without a physician. If you do this, you will be responsible for ensuring you are compliant with safety regulations and other legal requirements.
Family nurse practitioners are already in short supply, and demand is forecast to grow rapidly through 2031. According to the BLS, there will be a 40% growth in demand for FNPs during this period.
Adult-gerontology primary care nurse practitioner (AGPC) degree
Opting for the adult-gerontology specialization will give you the skills and knowledge you need to provide excellent care to people at all stages of adulthood, from late adolescents to adults and the elderly.
Responsibilities for adult-gerontology primary care nurse practitioners (AGPCNP) include:
- Conducting physical examinations
- Arranging tests and screenings
- Interpreting test results
- Reviewing medical histories
- Diagnosing health problems
- Managing chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, respiratory conditions and hypertension
- Administering therapies (both pharmacological and nonpharmacological)
- Managing patient transitions between care settings
- Planning for future care needs
AGPCNPs work and set up businesses in settings such as:
- Hospital-based clinics
- College health centers
- Specialty clinics
- House call practices
- Elderly care businesses
- Hospices and palliative care facilities
Many AGPCNPs enjoy this career specialization because they find they can develop long-term relationships with patients, often lasting several years. The online RN to NP programs offered by Spring Arbor University provides a curriculum which aims to help the quality of life for their patients. In doing so you will be able to access opportunities in mental health, pediatric treatment, and adult-Gerontology.
Whichever specialization you opt for in your RN to NP program, you can be sure that you are working towards a qualification and a very rewarding career.