Understanding the Role Nurse Practitioners Play in Health Care

July 6, 2020  •   LPi

Nurse Helping Senior patient

If you’ve visited a doctor’s office, an urgent care center, or been a patient in a hospital recently, you’ve likely been treated by a nurse practitioner (NP). You’ll also find NPs working in nursing homes, assisted living communities, schools, and hospices. There are an estimated 290,000 nurse practitioners serving patients nationwide.

In an increasingly busy health care industry, nurse practitioners are playing more essential roles than ever before. According to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP), people in this country make 1.06 billion visits to an NP every year.

Let’s take a look at the training NPs undergo, and what kind of licenses are required to practice.

What is a Nurse Practitioner?

According to AANP, nurse practitioners are licensed, independent healthcare clinicians who are trained to concentrate on wellness and disease prevention, as well as aid in treating injuries and illnesses.

NPs are required to have a master’s degree in nursing, though a doctoral degree in nursing practice (DNP) is becoming increasingly common. Nurse practitioners are licensed as advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs). All 50 states plus the District of Columbia have specific licensing requirements for those who practice in their state.

While family practice is the focus of the majority of nurse practitioners, many NPs also specialize in specific areas of medicine. Here are a few of the most common specialties:

  • Dermatology
  • Cardiology
  • Oncology
  • Behavioral health
  • Women’s health
  • Pediatric/child health
  • Geriatrics
  • Gastroenterology
  • Neurology

What role do nurse practitioners play in these and other specialties and why are NPs so important in health care? Here’s what patients across the country should know.

Why NPs are an Important Part of Health Care

Anyone who has had an encounter with the health care system that required seeing a specialist or returning for a follow-up visit knows how busy physicians are. Depending upon the specialty and the city, patients can wait months for an appointment.

Experienced nurse practitioners help ease these scheduling difficulties and other challenges in a variety of ways:

  • Treat primary care patients: As the nationwide shortage of physicians continues, the need for experienced nurse practitioners is increasing. NPs can see and treat patients for many primary-care health conditions. This frees up physicians’ time for more complex medical issues. Depending upon the state, nurse practitioners can even prescribe medications.
  • Cost effective care: When patients have quicker access to care and are seen by a health professional who can spend quality time with them, diseases and serious illnesses can be treated earlier. This prevents small problems from becoming big ones which helps control the cost of health care.
  • Focus on the whole person: While nurse practitioners, especially those who specialize, can address and treat medical issues, they also focus on wellness. An NP is trained to focus on caring for the whole person. This approach helps keep patients on track with preventative screenings and annual physicals, both of which are a necessary part of a proactive approach to care.

If you are wondering what nurse practitioners are legally able to do for patients in your state, this State Practice Environment tool breaks it down for you state-by-state.

An increasingly popular option for older adults to consider is a virtual appointment with their doctor. Are Virtual Physician Visits a Good Option for Seniors? can help you decide if it’s a good choice for you or an older loved one.

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