The United States is projected to experience a shortfall of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034, according to a 2021 report released by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). This potential shortage has led to an increased demand for nurse practitioners (NPs) to fill the gap in delivering quality health care. Registered nurses (RNs) must earn a master’s degree in nursing to qualify as NPs.
Many colleges and universities offer online nurse practitioner curriculums for RNs who want to pursue their studies while working. A master’s degree program, typically a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), usually takes two to four years to complete. After earning an MSN, nursing students can also look into choosing nurse practitioner specialties and earning online post-master’s certificates.
Typical Nurse Practitioner Curriculum
A typical MSN online nurse practitioner curriculum may include core courses on the following subjects:
- Advanced pathophysiology
- Advanced pharmacology
- Advanced physical and clinical assessment
- Advanced care management
- Nursing theory
- Evidence-based practice concepts
- Health promotion and health care delivery
- Leadership and interprofessional collaboration
- Health care finance and economics
- Health policy
- Statistics, biostatistics, and epidemiology in health care
How to Become a Nurse Practitioner
After completing an MSN program as well as a post-master’s certificate, nurses can apply to sit for a certification exam that evaluates their knowledge of nursing theory and clinical techniques in their desired specialization. Certification exams are administered by several certification boards, such as the American Nurses Credentialing Center, the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, and the National Certification Corporation. Most nursing subfields also have their own boards and exams; for example, the Pediatric Nursing Certification Board administers the Certified Pediatric Nurse (CPN) exam.
Passing a certification exam allows NPs to apply for licensure in the state where they want to practice. NPs who are already certified in one specialized field may choose to become certified in a second field as well, to further expand their practice and provide a wider range of health care services.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Nurse Practitioner?
The length of time it takes to become a nurse practitioner is an important consideration when exploring this career path. The time frame largely depends on where a nurse is on their journey, and which of the NP program options they choose. For instance, the process for individuals starting from square one can take six to eight years, as they’ll need to first complete their undergraduate degree to become an RN.
Professionals who are already licensed RNs may need two to four years to complete an advanced degree and pass the certification exam associated with their intended specialization. In this case, how long it takes to become a nurse practitioner can vary due to factors such as whether the advanced degree is pursued on a full- or part-time basis. The certification process associated with becoming a nurse practitioner typically takes less than a year to complete.
Alternatively, MSN-prepared RNs can pursue a post-master’s certificate to gain the knowledge and skills needed to excel in a nurse practitioner role. Certificate programs can prepare prospective NPs to become certified in their chosen field, such as pediatrics or women’s health. Certificate programs can take 12 to 24 months to complete.
Curriculum Defines the Key Skills of a Nurse Practitioner
At each stage of their careers, nurses develop new skills that allow them to provide patients with a higher quality of care. Post-master’s certificate courses are designed to equip students with the skills of a nurse practitioner by exposing them to an array of advanced competencies, including the following:
Advanced Health Assessment
Nurses are often responsible for evaluating incoming patients and determining the severity of their conditions. At the postgraduate level, students learn to examine health histories and apply advanced physical assessment techniques to diagnose patients. Upon completion of the program, certified NPs should understand how to collect and analyze in-depth patient data that other health care providers can use to inform their clinical decisions.
Advanced Clinical Pharmacology
Certified NPs are qualified to prescribe medications (although some states require physician oversight). To prepare them for this responsibility, an online nurse practitioner curriculum educates nurses about various drug interactions and side effects. Courses also cover a range of related pharmacological topics, such as pharmaceutical chemistry, biochemistry, and human toxicology.
Advanced Practice Management
NPs who intend to seek management positions must learn business skills that apply to clinical health care environments. Also, some states allow NPs to have full practice authority, which permits them to work independently without physician oversight. Mastering advanced management skills will serve these NPs well as they lead their own primary care practices and support staff members.
Advanced Clinical Practice
Every clinical specialization requires nurses to be proficient in a distinct set of skills. Post-master’s certificates offer concentrations that allow students to practice and refine these skills in hands-on clinical environments. Certified NPs demonstrate the necessary knowledge to prescribe complex medical treatments while delivering safe, quality care.
An online nurse practitioner curriculum not only provides students with the necessary clinical knowledge to perform their work but may also provide the opportunity for them to develop other critical skills.
Strong verbal and written communication skills are essential to effectively convey important information to other health care professionals as well as to patients and their families. Students are also taught the importance of listening.
NPs are often put in charge of other nurses and health care staff. This requires excellent leadership skills to ensure the efficient operation of a health care facility or practice.
Decision-Making and Problem-Solving
In a fast-paced clinical setting, NPs are often required to make decisions and solve problems that arise. Students can learn different ways to analyze situations and improve these critical skills.
Health care delivery is often a team effort. Students can learn the importance of working with others and develop mechanisms to ensure healthy collaboration. This is vital for providing quality health care.
The ability to schedule and prioritize time is highly important for NPs, who often work in busy, fast-paced environments. NPs also need to be adaptable and flexible, as situations and priorities can change at a moment’s notice.
In line with time management skills, organizational skills are key for NPs. Sound organizational ability can help ensure that tasks and projects run smoothly and take the pressure off health care staff.
The work of an NP can be extremely stressful. Students may learn techniques to deal with stress and remain calm under pressure. They may learn the importance of maintaining a positive work-life balance and pursuing off-duty activities that help prevent the buildup of stress and mitigate the potential for burnout.
Nurse Practitioner Specializations
Each online certificate program has a different nurse practitioner curriculum, which means students can choose which aspects of nursing they want to study. NPs can specialize in any of several categories that each target different patient populations:
Pediatric Nurse Practitioner (PNP)
This degree specialty offers RNs advanced courses in pharmacology, pathophysiology, nursing theory, and health assessment. Students learn to manage the clinical assessment and health care of children and young adults from birth to age 21. Apart from health issues, various biopsychosocial needs of patients are addressed through periodic checkups and developmental screenings. Specialized courses may include the primary care of pediatric patients.
Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP)
In this specialty, students learn about managing the health care of individuals throughout their life cycle, from infancy to old age. They may gain valuable knowledge of pediatric, adult, geriatric, and women’s primary health care.
Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP)
This specialty includes coursework in contemporary psychotherapies and advanced psychopharmacology, with the objective of preparing students to provide care for psychiatric and mental health patients. Students learn about the diagnosis and clinical management of dementia, depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric disorders. They may also develop treatment strategies for individuals dealing with substance use disorders.
Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner (WHNP)
Students in this specialty learn to manage the primary care of women through all stages of life, addressing specific women’s health issues including gynecological and reproductive concerns. This concentration may also explore the interconnections between class, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation.
Adult-Gerontology Nurse Practitioner (AGNP)
Preparing to provide care for adult-geriatric patients, NP students learn to investigate the sociological, political, and economic factors that impact aging. Students in this specialty may also learn about the unique challenges facing older people regarding access to health care. This specialization can focus on delivering either primary care or acute care to patients.
Job Outlook and Salary
NPs are in great demand and have many opportunities to secure jobs in hospitals, clinics, medical practices, schools, and colleges. In many states, NPs are permitted to work independently and can open their own private practices. In this case, an NP develops interpersonal relationships with physicians and medical specialists and refers patients to them when necessary. Some states do not allow NPs to work independently, however, and physicians must oversee their work.
Qualifying as an NP may enable nurses to enhance their career prospects and pursue roles with competitive compensation. Earning a post-master’s certificate may also enable nurses who hold an MSN in a nonclinical specialty, such as informatics or education, to reroute their careers to focus on advanced clinical practice.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), RNs had a median annual salary of $77,600 as of May 2021, while NPs’ median annual salary was $120,680.
Make a Meaningful Impact in Patient Care
The NP role is attractive to many practicing nurses because of the opportunities it offers for specialization, independence, career advancement, and leadership. Regardless of what specialization they may choose, NPs play a key role in ensuring that a health care facility achieves its ultimate goal — delivering quality care that can improve patient outcomes.
Regis College’s online Post-Master’s Certificate program can help prepare you to pursue this noble goal. Our program allows students to develop expertise in one of six NP specializations, equipping them to sit for one of the six national board certification exams.
The online nurse practitioner curriculum allows you to study for the nursing career you want in a way that fits into the lifestyle you have. Learn how we can help you get ready for the next step in your career.