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What is a nurse practitioner? 


This article has been vetted by University of Phoenix's editorial advisory committee. 
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Raelene Brooks, Dean, College of Nursing

Reviewed by Raelene Brooks, Dean, College of Nursing

The United States is experiencing a physician shortage. American Medical Association President Jesse M. Ehrenfeld, MD, MPH, cites “critical strains” on physicians and considers “an urgent crisis … hitting every corner of this country.” The physician shortage can limit access to vital healthcare for millions of Americans.

How can healthcare professionals — including nurses — reduce the impact of the shortage?

Part of the answer may lie with nurses who want to grow their skills and continue their education and career by becoming nurse practitioners (NPs).

Nurse practitioners fulfill a vital role in the healthcare system. An NP is an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) who has completed additional training beyond that required of registered nurses (RNs). Nurse practitioners can provide either primary or specialty care, depending on their focus, education and experience.

Explore degrees that expand your skills and prepare you to lead in nursing. 

NPs work with patients of all ages and in various settings, including hospitals, clinics and private practices. NPs have extensive training that enables them to provide many of the same services as physicians, often at a lower cost. Depending on the state, they may also be able to practice independently without physician oversight, further increasing their ability to meet patients’ needs. In fact, an NP might be a patient’s primary healthcare provider.

Nurse practitioners undergo training to perform various duties, including:

  • Conducting physical exams
  • Ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests
  • Diagnosing acute and chronic conditions
  • Prescribing medications
  • Providing health education
  • Making necessary specialist referrals

Becoming a nurse practitioner involves substantial training and certification, including active licensure as an RN, a graduate degree in nursing and advanced clinical training. Read on to learn more about nurse practitioners, including their daily responsibilities, practices and differences from other healthcare professionals.

Nurse practitioner vs. other practitioner roles 

While nurse practitioners can share many of the same responsibilities as physicians or physician assistants, critical differences between professions go beyond experience and salary.

Nurse practitioners vs. doctors 

Even though nurse practitioners and physicians have overlapping responsibilities, key differences between the roles include education, training and scope of practice.

Medical doctors must complete a four-year undergraduate degree, four years of medical school and three to seven years of residency. NPs typically need a bachelor’s degree in nursing, a master’s or doctoral degree in nursing practice and to pass an NP board exam.

University of Phoenix requires all nurse practitioner students to attend a five-day, in-person residency. This is to ensure the efficacy of their training, says Raelene Brooks, PhD, RN.

Brooks is the dean of the College of Nursing, and she points to the importance of this program differentiator. During their residency training, students perform exams on live models as a way to put theory into practice and gain skills that will benefit them in healthcare settings.  

While NPs and medical doctors can diagnose conditions, prescribe treatments and act as primary care providers, the scope varies for NPs based on state laws. In some states, NPs can practice independently; in others, they must have a collaborative agreement with a physician.

Because of their shorter training period, NPs can often cost less to employ than medical doctors. This can help make healthcare more affordable and accessible in underserved areas.

Nurse practitioners vs. physician assistants 

Nurse practitioners and physician assistants (PAs) provide patient care services, but there are big differences in their education, training, practice model and areas of specialization.

Compared with the nursing background of NPs, which emphasizes a holistic approach to patient care, PAs usually focus on a disease-centered medical model.

To illustrate this difference, Brooks refers to a diabetes diagnosis. A physician or PA might focus on managing the illness through medication, she says, whereas a nurse practitioner will try to understand the patient’s community, diet and lifestyle as well. Does diabetes run in the family? Are there other ways, such as diet and exercise, to mitigate the effects of the disease? Understanding this will help them diagnose, educate and treat patients for their diseases.

Most PAs hold a master’s degree in physician assistant studies. Their education typically mirrors that of doctors, focusing on diagnosis and treatment, and the scope of care is greater. For example, nurse practitioners cannot provide surgical care, but physician assistants who work with surgeons may, for example, be able to close incisions and perform duties before, during and after surgery.

Areas of specialization and practice can overlap between NPs and PAs. NPs often serve specific populations like pediatrics, women’s health, mental health and older adults, while PAs also work in areas such as family medicine, emergency medicine and psychiatry. 

Nurse practitioners vs. registered nurses 

While NPs and RNs are types of nurses who play crucial roles in patient care, nurse practitioners have more education and responsibilities than RNs.

RNs usually hold a diploma, associate degree or bachelor’s degree in nursing. After completing the degree or program, they must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) to become licensed RNs.

Although NPs all begin as RNs they must go on to complete a master’s or doctoral degree and additional clinical training. They must also pass a national certification exam in their specialty.

The responsibilities of NPs and RNs differ significantly. Consider the following job duties of RNs:

  • Provide direct patient care
  • Administer medications
  • Monitor patient progress
  • Educate patients and families

NPs have a broader scope of practice. They can diagnose and treat acute or chronic conditions, prescribe medication and perform certain procedures.

RNs and NPs can both work in different medical settings and gain experience in various fields. RNs might specialize in critical care or trauma, for example, and NPs can specialize in areas like family practice, pediatrics, adult gerontology, mental health and women’s health, among others.

Day-to-day responsibilities 

What does a nurse practitioner do each day? Like any nursing-focused profession, the answer depends on where they practice and what they specialize in. Generally speaking, however, NPs often perform the following tasks:

  • Take medical histories and conduct exams
  • Diagnose acute and chronic illnesses
  • Develop treatment plans and prescribe medication
  • Educate their patients on health promotion

Remember, the scope of an NP’s practice can vary based on their location, autonomy and specialty.

Types of nurse practitioners 

While not exactly among the many related but alternative careers to nursing, working as an NP does offer a discrete professional experience. That’s especially true if you want to specialize in a particular branch of care. Some nurse practitioners focus on family medicine, while others might devote their practice to pediatrics. Other specialties include psychiatric and mental health care, acute care and neonatal care.

NPs specialize in particular areas of focus and their education is tailored to their chosen focus. Let’s walk through a couple of specialties for NPs below.

Family nurse practitioner 

Family nurse practitioners (FNPs) focus on providing care for patients of all ages throughout their lives. That includes holistic care, disease prevention, counseling and more. FNPs often act as advocates who help their patients navigate the healthcare system, and they can coordinate care among specialists or other health providers. The role of an FNP can vary widely, depending on the state in which they practice and the healthcare setting they choose. Some FNPs may choose to work in a busy physician’s office, for example, while other FNPs dedicate their careers to caring for patients in rural areas.

Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner 

Nurse practitioners focusing on psychiatric mental health help patients manage their mental health conditions with therapy and medication. Known as psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs), these professionals conduct comprehensive psychiatric evaluations to identify mental health issues, including substance use disorders, depression and anxiety. They’re also able to provide various forms of crisis intervention, including psychotherapy and medications.

The MSN/PMH program at University of Phoenix was launched in 2022 in response to national health trends outlined by the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Brooks says. The UOPX program not only teaches disorder assessment and prevention, self-care management and psychotherapeutic intervention, she explains, but it also emphasizes the importance of identifying possible physical causes behind mental health disorders.

For example, Brooks mentions that hyperthyroidism can appear as substance abuse or even a mental health disorder. Having a solid understanding of physical health factors and assessing for those first can help PMHNPs provide more effective and accurate care. 

Educational pathways 

The educational pathways to becoming a nurse practitioner are relatively straightforward. It all starts with earning your RN license.

  • If you’re an RN with an associate degree or nursing diploma, you’ll need to earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). BSNs strengthen relevant skills and help continue your progress toward graduate-level coursework.

The University of Phoenix RN to Bachelor of Science in Nursing helps you build on what your experience has taught you while empowering you to focus on advanced skills.

In addition to the standard degree pathways, every prospective NP must successfully complete supervised clinical hours. University of Phoenix requires students to complete 600 hours of clinical experience through designated program courses.

After that, you’ll need to pass your state’s licensing exam and earn the appropriate certification(s) from the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board or the American Nurses Credentialing Center (each requires periodic renewal). UOPX’s nurse practitioner programs academically prepare students for this step, Brooks notes.

Nurse practitioner salary 

Nurse practitioner salaries can vary based on many factors, including location, experience and specialty. As of May 2022, those who worked in hospitals and outpatient care centers earned more than NPs who worked in doctor offices or with other health practitioners. As of May 2022, nurse practitioners salaries ranged between $91,250 and $208,080, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Salary ranges are not specific to students or graduates of University of Phoenix. Actual outcomes vary based on multiple factors, including prior work experience, geographic location and other factors specific to the individual. University of Phoenix does not guarantee employment, salary level or career advancement. BLS data is geographically based. Information for a specific state/city can be researched on the BLS website.

Consider a nurse practitioner role 

Because of their versatility and skill set, NPs fulfill a vital role in the communities they serve. Becoming a nurse practitioner is an excellent way for RNs to grow their knowledge and enhance their careers, especially in rural or other underserved areas.

Prospective NPs can leverage their existing skills and competencies to grow their education in one of UOPX’s two nurse practitioner programs:

To learn more about online nursing degrees at UOPX — including those that lead to a fulfilling career as a nurse practitioner — contact University of Phoenix.

Headshot of Michael Feder


A graduate of Johns Hopkins University and its Writing Seminars program and winner of the Stephen A. Dixon Literary Prize, Michael Feder brings an eye for detail and a passion for research to every article he writes. His academic and professional background includes experience in marketing, content development, script writing and SEO. Today, he works as a multimedia specialist at University of Phoenix where he covers a variety of topics ranging from healthcare to IT.


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