What Is a Nurse Practitioner?

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A nurse listening to a patients heart beat using a stethoscope

Age demographics in the United States are shifting, and a large percentage of baby boomers are entering health care facilities. Finding qualified health care workers to provide care for this influx of patients is presenting a challenge, and the number of physicians entering the workplace cannot keep up. Nurse practitioners, however, may be able to ease this burden on current primary care physicians. What is a nurse practitioner, and how can nurse practitioners help?

A nurse practitioner (NP) is an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). Nurse practitioners possess a registered nurse (RN) license and either a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a doctorate. NPs may work autonomously or as part of a larger medical staff and can perform many of a physician’s duties, such as diagnosing illnesses and prescribing medications. Their extended education and skill set make them an important ingredient in the future of health care in the United States.

Responsibilities of a Nurse Practitioner

A nurse practitioner focuses on providing patients with primary care, looking after a patient’s overall health rather than just a single illness. An NP’s typical duties include:

  • Ordering and performing diagnostic tests and interpreting the results
  • Diagnosing acute and chronic conditions and providing treatment options
  • Prescribing medications and therapies
  • Educating patients on disease prevention and positive lifestyle choices

A nurse practitioner can follow patients from infancy into adulthood, delivering babies and caring for the elderly. With the focus on the patient’s overall health, an NP often provides guidance alongside treatment for preventive care.

Nurse Practitioner Concentrations

The area in which an NP chooses to specialize contributes to what a nurse practitioner is. Before enrolling in an MSN program, an aspiring NP should have experience in the field in which he or she wishes to specialize. A few of the potential specialization areas for an NP are family medicine, pediatrics, gerontology, and psychiatric mental health.

Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP)
An FNP works with patients throughout their entire lifespan, primarily focusing on family health. These NPs work with a diverse group of patients and conduct different procedures and tests that contribute to family health. An FNP can do small procedures, such as taking skin biopsies, placing casts on broken bones, and conducting gynecological exams. The diversity of patients and illnesses can make each day different for an FNP. Since most states allow them to operate independently, an FNP can run a family clinic. For an FNP who is passionate about providing family-centered care, this can be an incredibly satisfying career option.

Pediatric Nurse Practitioner (PNP)
A PNP focuses on providing care and treatment for children who are experiencing illness. A child’s development is vastly different from an adult’s, and a pediatric NP has the knowledge and experience to work with children of all ages, from infants to teenagers. These NPs understand how treatments can impact a child, and they provide the most suitable option based on the child’s plan of care. There are various subspecialties for PNPs, such as pediatric neurology or oncology, which require additional certifications.

Gerontological Nurse Practitioner (GNP)
A GNP specializes in diagnosing, treating, and managing acute and chronic conditions that impact older and aging adults. Because of the type of conditions that older adults are treated for, such as injuries, dementia, and loss of functional abilities, a GNP will work in places that are suited to treat these conditions, which include assisted living facilities, ambulatory care clinics, and patients’ homes.

Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP)
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, there are almost 45 million people in the United States that live with a mental illness. A PMHNP can diagnose mental illness and provide support and care for individuals and families who have or are at risk of having a psychiatric disorder. A PMHNP combines the nursing process with treatment options to support a patient in their day-to-day activities. Since patients can experience mental illness at any stage of their lives, PMHNPs can work in almost any care setting and with any population.

Why Become a Nurse Practitioner?

Why a nurse chooses to become an NP may be more important than what a nurse practitioner is. Many nurses are driven to provide the best care for their patients. Further education and a focus on guiding patients through their entire health journey rather than just a single part can make a significant difference in the lives of both NPs and their patients. With the opportunity to have such a substantial impact on the outcome of someone’s life, it is hard to ignore the calling to become a nurse practitioner.

Learn More

For students who aspire to an advanced career in nursing, Ohio University’s online MSN program helps them gain the skills and experience necessary to take their nursing careers to the next level. Learn more about Ohio University’s online Master of Science in Nursing.

Recommended Reading

Ohio University Blog, “Master’s in Nursing vs. Bachelor’s in Nursing: Growing Your Nursing Career”
Ohio University Blog, “Child Health In The U.S.”
Ohio University Blog, “5 Benefits of Health Information Technology for Nurse Practitioners”


American Academy of Nurse Practitioners, FAMILY NURSE PRACTITIONER (FNP)
American Association of Colleges of Nursing, Masters Education
Houston Chronicle, “What Is the Difference Between a Clinical Nurse Specialist & a Nurse Practitioner?”
National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists, “What is a CNS”
Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners
News Medical Life Sciences, Pediatric Nursing
Gerontological Advanced Practice Nurses Association, Clinical Practice of Gerontological Nurse Practitioners
National Institute of Mental Health, Mental Illness