What Is a Nurse Practitioner?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 23, 2021

A nurse practitioner is a health care professional who offers a wide range of acute, primary, and specialty care services, either alone or alongside a doctor.

As primary care physicians leave the profession faster than they can be replaced, especially in rural areas, nurse practitioners play a larger role as primary care providers. They’re also vital to care in specialized medicine, which has its own physician shortages.

There’s a lot of overlap in the roles of nurse practitioners and physicians, but nurse practitioners focus on preventing diseases and promoting the health and well-being of the whole person.

Acute care nurse practitioners (ACNP) work in hospitals or acute care clinics. They see patients when they are sick, are admitted to the hospital, have injuries, or have surgical procedures. They treat patients from admission to discharge.

They can order diagnostic and laboratory tests to help diagnose diseases. They may do procedures such as intubation, debriding wounds, and putting casts on injuries. They work as part of a health care team to develop a treatment plan and follow-up care.  

Over 75 percent of nurse practitioners are primary care nurse practitioners, also known as family nurse practitioners (FNP). They can diagnose and treat short-term (acute) and long-term (chronic) problems in doctor’s offices and other outpatient settings. FNPs can work alone in 20 states and under the supervision of a physician in the others.

Nurse practitioners may also specialize in specific practice areas such as orthopedics, pediatrics, oncology, gerontology, and psychiatry. They diagnose and treat diseases related to these specialties and serve as part of a patient’s health care team.

All nurse practitioners complete a Bachelor's of Science in Nursing (BSN) program and a Master's of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree. NPs then pass a standardized exam to get certification from the specialty nursing board that oversees their practice area.

Finally, NPs must get a license from their state. The requirements vary and may include renewing a license or completing a certain number of continuing education hours each year.

Nurse practitioners treat a variety of issues relating to specialties like: 

  • Acute care
  • Adult gerontology acute care
  • Adult gerontology primary care
  • Cardiac medicine
  • Family medicine
  • Gerontology
  • Neonatal medicine
  • Nurse midwife
  • Oncology
  • Orthopedics
  • Pediatrics
  • Pediatric acute care
  • Psychiatry and mental health
  • Women's health

Many times, nurse practitioners work in collaboration with physicians, so you may see either one when you visit their office. You may also choose to see a nurse practitioner instead of a doctor. These appointments can be easier to schedule and less expensive.

Doctors have more training and are licensed differently. Nurse practitioners may provide treatment that is focused more on the whole patient, since their training emphasizes improved health and disease prevention rather than just disease treatment.

Some surveys have found that patients are generally happier with the treatment they get from nurse practitioners than doctors.

Show Sources


American Association of Nurse Practitioners: "What's a Nurse Practitioner (NP)?" 

American Association of Nurse Practitioners: "Nurse Practitioners in Primary Care."

Clinical Advisor: "Nurse Practitioners Outscore Physicians in Patient Satisfaction Survey."

Managed Care Podcast: "Nurse Practitioners: Taking on New Roles as Physician Shortage Grows."

Nurse.org: "Career Guide Series: Acute Care Nurse Practitioner."

Nursing License Map: "American Board for Specialty Nursing Certification."

The American Journal of Managed Care: "Nurse Practitioners Play an Increasing Role in Primary Care."

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