What role does a nurse practitioner play in the American healthcare system?

At some point in life, all of us will need to make a trip to the doctor’s office, but the professional we encounter there might not always be a doctor. There are many layers to the healthcare system in the United States, with support workers, nurses, receptionists, and people in many other roles working hard to ensure the system operates efficiently and successfully every day. 

One role that plays an important and integral part in the healthcare system is that of the nurse practitioner. What makes a nurse practitioner different from other nurses, and how does their role fit into the complex ecosystem of American healthcare? Here is a closer look.

What is the role of a nurse practitioner? 

A nurse practitioner is a role that sits somewhere between a nurse and a doctor in terms of its levels of education and responsibilities within the healthcare system. They are mid-level experts who are trained to assess, diagnose and treat patients independently of a doctor. They are highly skilled, educated, and have plenty of clinical experience, often taking a more holistic approach to healthcare. 

Nurse practitioners provide a wide range of primary, acute, and specialty healthcare services to millions of people every day and make a positive impact on the healthcare system and patients. Taking a holistic approach to health, they look at the whole person through the assessment, diagnosis, and treatment stages, taking in the bigger-picture view that is often missed in times of ill health. This keeps waiting times and costs to the patient down while providing excellent service and care. 

What are the responsibilities of a nurse practitioner?

The responsibilities of a nurse practitioner are wide, varied, and highly skilled. They are often more complex than those of a nurse, with the ability to order and interpret laboratory tests, diagnose diseases and prescribe medications for patients. Their roles often include elements of nurses’ and doctors’ roles, helping them bridge the gap between the layers of staffing and maintain high levels of care, service, and efficiency for patients. 

Nurse practitioners also have the ability to prescribe medications and devise treatment plans once they have diagnosed diseases or ailments without having to escalate the case to a doctor.

The history of the nurse practitioner role

Since the mid-1960s, nurse practitioners have continually increased in popularity and advanced into many different areas of the health industry. By 1973, more than 65 programs existed in the U.S. alone, jumping to more than 200 by 1980. This popularity has gone from strength to strength, and this is demonstrated by the fact there were more than 211,000 NPs in the US by 2020. 

The road to becoming a nurse practitioner

To qualify as a nurse practitioner, you must follow a clearly guided route to acquire the correct qualifications, experience, and skills. As outlined on the American Association Of Nurse Practitioners website, “All NPs must complete a master’s or doctoral degree program and have advanced clinical training beyond their initial professional registered nurse (RN) preparation.’

Although the training can be long, the path is clear and well-trodden, resulting in lots of support, information, and resources becoming available to help with your journey to this rewarding career. 

One route that many people take into this field, especially in our post-Covid 19 world, is obtaining their qualifications online. This can be a great way to balance an already busy work or family life with studying as it provides much more flexibility and adaptability to your needs. By studying a program online, you eliminate the potential costs of relocating or taking a long commute to an in-person class. The nature of these kinds of courses means that you can continue working, and study at times that are more convenient to you and your lifestyle. 

The University of Indianapolis, for example, offers a MSN-AGNP online program that allows students to earn a Master’s of Science in Nursing, and it’s aimed specifically at working nurses in a part-time format to take them to that next level of specialty in just eight semesters. 

Specialties as a nurse practitioner

Once you have been fully trained and acquired clinical experience, you can then pursue specialties within the nurse practitioner role depending on your individual interests and skills.

Nurse practitioners work in almost every healthcare setting imaginable. These include hospitals, clinics, and emergency rooms, as well as nursing homes, schools and colleges, and public health departments. The variety and number of workplaces that are on offer to qualified NPs show how nurse practitioners are widely needed across all areas of the health journey, and that there are many options available to them. 

There are also many specialty areas you can enter in this field, including:

  • Acute Care
  • Adult Health
  • Family Health
  • Gerontology Health
  • Neonatal Health
  • Oncology
  • Pediatric Health
  • Psychiatric and Mental Health
  • Women’s Health
  • Allergy and Immunology
  • Cardiovascular Health
  • Dermatology
  • Emergency Medicine 
  • Endocrinology
  • Gastroenterology
  • Hematology
  • Neurology
  • Occupational Health
  • Orthopedics
  • Pulmonology and Respiratory Health
  • Sports Medicine
  • Urology

With so many options, it can be a little overwhelming, but it’s also very exciting as there really is something to match everyone’s interests. As you gain more experience, the right specialty for you may become apparent; some individuals have a few specialties that they work toward throughout their career as a nurse practitioner. 

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