In an increasingly complex health care environment, nurse practitioners lead the industry in delivering better health outcomes for individual patients and communities at large. Preparing nurse practitioners (NPs) for tomorrow’s health care challenges requires a combination of education and training that accurately reflects the range of opportunities and obstacles nurses will encounter in their careers. To address this need, NPs and other advanced practice nurses will soon need a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) for entry-level positions. This marks a significant change from today’s requirement of a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN).
In May 2018, the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties (NONPF) announced that all entry-level nurse practitioner education programs would shift from the MSN to the DNP by 2025. The NONPF’s decision reflects the need for NPs to have a practice-focused doctoral degree that emphasizes the clinical aspects of disease treatment and prevention. The question remains: how will the NP-to-DNP shift affect NPs today and in the future?
As the NONPF stated in its announcement, “The role of nurse practitioners has evolved.” The primary purpose for the NONPF’s decision to require DNP degrees in the future is to improve patient care. To best serve patients, NPs should be experts in data analysis to diagnose and treat diseases. They also need to be proficient in health economics, demographics, ethical and legal health issues, and health policy. These new skills are prioritized components of DNP curricula.
The NONPF announcement follows the organization’s 2015 statement expressing its support for the DNP and for faculty members “as they embrace curriculum change.” Also in 2015, the American Association of the Colleges of Nursing (AACN) recommended that nursing programs shift from awarding master’s degrees to doctoral degrees for advanced practice nurses. As far back as 2011, a report released by the Institute of Medicine recommended doubling the number of nurses holding a doctorate by 2020.
The Benefits of a DNP for Future NPs and Those Currently Practicing
The DNP is considered a terminal degree because it is the highest level of education for the nursing profession. One thing that distinguishes doctors of nursing practice from other nursing professionals is their ability to work as independent practitioners. In addition to leading the diagnosis and treatment of disease from a clinical perspective, DNPs can serve as certified nurse midwives (CNMs), certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs), and doctors of nurse anesthesia practice (DNAPs), among dozens of other specialties.
Stephen Ferrara writes on the Daily Nurse that NPs are vital for addressing the main shortcoming of evidence-based practice on the front lines of the health care industry. Ferrara describes evidence-based practice as a “foundational tenet of DNP curricula.” However, decision-making in clinical settings cannot always be based on the best available evidence. Nurses must take the research one step further and translate that discovered evidence into applied practice, according to Ferrara.
The transition from NP to DNP is positive for patients and practitioners alike. The change in education requirement may help the health care industry provide higher-quality care in a timelier and less expensive manner. Doctors of nursing practice possess the skills required to identify and advocate for replacing the outdated practices that hinder access to the health care resources patients need. DNPs are trained to uphold the highest standards of quality clinical care at a time of shrinking medical budgets by finding ways to make the delivery of health care more efficient and more effective.
Even before the NONPF’s announcement of the future DNP requirement, many practicing NPs had decided to pursue their doctorates. The professional goal of working toward a DNP is more practical now than ever because of convenient programs such as Regis College’s online MSN to Doctor of Nursing Practice, which prepares practicing NPs for in-demand leadership roles spanning nurse education, patient care, and health care policy. The Regis College DNP program offers students a choice of two focus areas: Nurse Education and Nurse Leadership, the latter of which encompasses informatics, regulatory policy, organization structure, and related management issues.
How DNPs Help Address the Critical Shortage of Nurses
NPs with a DNP play a pivotal role in the education of future nurse generations — a need that is especially critical in light of the widening gap between the supply and demand for skilled nursing professionals. Among the reasons cited for the growing shortage of nurses are an aging population that increases demand for health care services and an aging nursing workforce in positions that will be difficult to fill as experienced nurses retire.
The American Nurses Association highlights the negative impact the nursing shortage continues to have on the delivery of health care. The sufficient staffing of qualified nurses reduces mortality rates, shortens patient stays, and minimizes falls and nosocomial illnesses. To combat the shortage of nurses, the ANA recommends that nurses practice to “the full extent of their education, training, and licensure” and that they “achieve higher levels of education and training through an improved education system that promotes seamless academic progression.”
The DNP provides NPs with the skills they will need to ensure patients and communities receive the highest quality of health care possible, in a timely and cost-effective manner. For example, the ability to analyze patient data provides hospitals with greater flexibility in staffing to ensure nursing resources are applied when and where they are needed most.
The nursing shortage is a primary reason why the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that the demand for nurse practitioners, nurse anesthetists, and nurse midwives will increase by 31 percent between 2016 and 2026. That rate is much faster than the average for all occupations (7 percent). As of May 2017, the median salary for a nurse practitioner was $103,880.
The Nurse Education Community Reacts to the NONPF’s DNP Announcement
Making the move from NP to DNP continues to grow in popularity in the health care community. The AACN estimates that there are currently 303 active DNP programs in the U.S., with 124 more in the planning stages, 66 of which are post-master’s programs. Interest in DNP degrees was growing prior to the NONPF’s decision: the number of students enrolled in DNP programs increased from 21,995 in 2015 to 25,289 in 2016, according to AACN figures. The number of DNP graduates rose to 4,855 in 2016 from 4,100 in 2015.
In addition to addressing the shortage of nurses, the increasing number of NPs earning doctoral degrees will help the health care industry respond to the growing — and unmet — demand for physicians. The number of students graduating from medical school increased 27.5 percent between 2002 and 2016, according to STAT News, yet the number of available residencies rose by only 8 percent in that period.
While organizations such as the Association of American Medical Colleges are seeking additional federal funding for residency training programs to alleviate the physician shortage, DNPs can step in to assist with care. In expanding the roles of nurse practitioners into areas that are currently the sole purview of medical doctors, more patients can receive the high-quality treatment they deserve. As STAT News reports, the quality of care NPs provide is equal to that of doctors but is usually performed at a much lower cost. The AAMC concluded that maximum use of non-physician providers is the only policy intervention that will lead to greater supply than demand, particularly in primary care.
These converging trends place NPs with DNPs in a unique position: they are the drivers of improved clinical care, the champions for new health care technologies, and the mentors and leaders for the next generation of nurses and other health care professionals. The growing demand for NPs with doctorates in nursing practice, the expanding roles DNPs play in the dynamic health care field, and the impact DNP holders have on their profession and in their communities point to a bright future for doctors of nursing practice.
Place yourself on the cutting edge of nursing practice by earning your online DNP degree from Regis College. Speak with an enrollment adviser today about how Regis College’s online MSN to DNP program can help prepare you for your future in nursing.