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How to become a nurse practitioner

Nurse practitioner

Nurse practitioners are among the most in-demand professionals in the health care industry, and the field is expected to grow because of the Affordable Care Act and aging baby boomers requiring more medical services.

But pursuing this career requires more than a good bedside manner and a registered nursing certificate. Nurse practitioners hold graduate degrees with a specialty in advanced practice and can make clinical diagnoses, while registered nurses (RNs) may have undergraduate or graduate degrees but not a certificate in advanced practice. They assist primary care providers with patients.

Mary DeNicola, a nurse practitioner and chair for the College of Nursing at the University of Phoenix Southern California Campus, explains how to prepare if you want to pursue a career in this challenging health care field:


Know your options.

This is a profession in which you can expand your nursing opportunities beyond hospital walls, DeNicola says. Nurse practitioners can choose from a variety of work environments, including opening a practice and working for home health care agencies. In addition, they can work at large companies that have on-staff nurses, as well as in doctors’ offices.

There’s never been a better time to become a nurse practitioner, she says, noting, “I can’t educate enough nurse practitioners fast enough to meet our country’s current need for more primary health care providers.”


Become a licensed RN.

You can’t be a nurse practitioner — or even successfully apply to a nurse practitioner program — until you first earn your RN license, DeNicola stresses. She also advises that you research national certification requirements that validate advanced nursing knowledge.

Some states won’t allow employers to hire nurse practitioners or to be reimbursed for their services unless the nurse practitioners also pass a national certification exam.


Attend graduate school.

Once you’re a licensed RN, be prepared to study some more. Working as a nurse practitioner requires a master’s degree, which adds to the critical-thinking and leadership skills you learned in a bachelor’s nursing program, DeNicola says.

You’ll also gain insight into the legislative and organizational aspects of nursing and focus on a specialty, such as family practice, women’s health, pediatrics, adult geriatrics, acute care or occupational health.


Decide if you want the increased responsibility.

DeNicola cautions that the job is high stress and requires thinking on your feet to make major health care decisions for patients, such as calculating proper drug dosages. This is usually uncharted territory for a registered nurse, she explains, who defers to a doctor to order or interpret a final medical diagnosis and corresponding treatment.

“Ask yourself if you truly can handle the increased level of responsibility that comes with being a nurse practitioner, because not everybody can do this job,” DeNicola advises. For her, she finds the work rewarding: “It’s one of the best professional steps I’ve taken. Becoming a nurse practitioner is a really cool thing.”