Nurse Practitioners

By working in specialty areas such as pediatrics, women's health, and acute care, nurse practitioners provide education, counseling, and health care to patients and their families. Nurse practitioners are also responsible for treating illnesses, ordering and performing diagnostic tests, prescribing medications, and managing the overall care of patients. As with most advanced nursing professions, a master's degree is required to become a nurse practitioner. While the majority of nursing programs award master's degrees, all of them will be mandated to include doctoral nursing degrees by 2015, according to the American Nursing Association. In addition to academic credentials, nurse practitioners must also be certified under the requirements of their state.

Nurse practitioners need continuing education to ‘keep up their skills in the field’ and to ensure that they are actively ‘working as a nurse practitioner and not as a registered nurse.’

Vicky JenkinsCertification Department at the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners

Getting Nurse Practitioner Licensure and Certification

All nurse practitioners and other registered nurses must not only possess at least a graduate degree, but must also be licensed. Eligibility varies from state to state, and nurse practitioners with specialties in pediatrics or ambulatory care may have to undergo additional training. Nurses who successfully complete their degrees must pass the National Council Licensure Examination, or NCLEX-RN exam, to become licensed. Areas covered on the examination include basic patient care and comfort, patient safety, infection control, health promotion and maintenance, psychosocial integrity, pharmacological therapy, and risk assessment. Nursing students should also expect to be tested on their knowledge of anatomy, medical terminology, and decision-making skills.

National requirements for nurse practitioners and other advanced practice nurses involve the completion of a graduate degree from an accredited nursing program approved by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN), American Nursing Association (ANA), or American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP). The degree program must prepare students for NCLEX-RN examinations in addition to practical training and clinical skills. Many states allow nurse practitioners to prescribe medication, which requires the extensive study of pharmacology in addition to primary care, specialty care, and other areas of expertise. Other requirements for licensure in some states include a criminal background check and self-disclosure of information regarding past substance abuse, criminal history, or other certifications and licenses you may possess. For more information on individual state requirements, consult your state's nursing board.

Maintaining Nurse Practitioner Licensure and Certification

According to Vicky Jenkins of the Certification Department at the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners, there is a minimum of 75 contact hours of continuing education required. "If someone is working part time or full time, they'll still be able to meet those requirements," Jenkins said. Furthermore, these hours can be completed through extension courses and online classes. "[AANP] offers classes online and there are a lot of other groups that offer classes online as well." These hours must be completed through programs approved by your state's nursing board or a national organization such as AANP, and there are other ways to satisfy your requirements if you are unable to attend classes. "Conferences count as credit hours," Jenkins said. "We have a conference once a year, but any other classes and conferences need to be accredited by AANP," or another nursing organization, such as the NCSBN.

Like most medical professions, continuing education is important in ensuring that nurse practitioners are trained in responding to and solving up-to-date problems within their specialty, as well as expanding professional knowledge. Nurse practitioners need continuing education to "keep up their skills in the field" and to ensure that they are actively "working as a nurse practitioner and not as a registered nurse," according to Jenkins. This is important because nurse practitioners can diagnose conditions and prescribe medications, while registered nurses cannot. In order to main certification, nurse practitioners must stay abreast of all current and developing issues regarding different diagnoses, prescriptions, and treatment. Also, because nurse practitioners interact more with medical staffs in the treatment of patients, they must share the same level of knowledge.

Although organizations like AANP have requirements that work across all 50 states, the number of contact hours required varies from state to state. Contact hours must be completed within a specified time frame prior to your license expiration date. In most states, nurses must renew their licenses every two years, although some states require annual renewals. States including Vermont and Wyoming require a set number of contact hours over the course of several years, while others may offer a choice between completing a certain number of contact hours within two years or five years.

In addition, different states have different requirements for the nature of continuing education courses taken by nurse practitioners. For example, Michigan requires at least one contact hour specializing in pain management, while Washington expects its nurses to complete continuing education in AIDS education and care. Other state requirements for maintaining licensure go beyond continuing education. For example, nurse practitioners in Texas can be randomly selected for fingerprinting for official records within their first decade of practice.

The American Nursing Association recommends online learning for satisfying continuing education requirements and offers discounts to affiliated online schools and universities, such as Drexel University Online and Grand Canyon University Online. Informative resources like offer information on the newest continuing education courses available in your state and online. Completing your contact hours online can be an ideal way to attend seminars and complete courses without disrupting your busy schedule.

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