Quick! Somebody Call a … Nurse Practitioner?

By: Meg Irish & Ashley Gesiewski

With all the different technical titles that exist within the field of medicine, it can be confusing for patients when choosing a physician. In particular, there tends to be a misunderstanding around the title of Nurse Practitioner (NP).

What is a nurse practitioner?

A nurse practitioner is an advance practice Registered Nurse. This means they were once a registered nurse and went back to school to broaden their scope of practice. Nurse practitioners can diagnose and treat illnesses and prescribe medications. According to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP), NPs work “autonomously and in collaboration with healthcare professionals and other individuals, to provide a full range of primary, acute and specialty health care services.” These clinicians are becoming an integral part of healthcare facilities as their experience working as a nurse gives them a unique approach to patient care.

How are nurse practitioners educated and certified?

A nurse practitioner receives education and training at the graduate level (a master’s degree or higher). Most graduate schools require five years of nursing experience before a student can graduate as a nurse practitioner. There are different NP degrees that focus on certain areas in healthcare such as family medicine, women’s heath, pediatrics, emergency medicine, and psychiatry.

Finally, to become certified, all NPs are required to take a certification exam through the state board. To maintain their certifications, NPs are required to complete 48 hours of continued education credits every two years.

What are the duties and responsibilities of a nurse practitioner?

Nurse practitioners are able to provide many of the same primary care services as physicians. They are trained to assess patients, order and interpret diagnostic and laboratory tests, diagnose injuries, illnesses and diseases, screen and refer patients to specialists, and prescribe medications.

In some states NPs are able to practice independently without physician oversight. As of 2018, in Virginia, NPs can go into practice on their own after five years of experience.

How does a nurse practitioner differ from a physician assistant?

To put it simply, the main difference between a nurse practitioner and a physician assistant is the difference in patient care and training. An NP receives training in line with the nursing model following a patient-centered philosophy. The nursing model looks at patients and their mental and emotional needs as much as their physical problems. While a physician assistant receives training in accordance to the medical model, and typically adheres to a disease-centered philosophy with an emphasis on disease pathology and the anatomy and physiological systems that comprise the human body.

Both medical professions require a master’s degree and certification exam. The main differences are that all NPs were once practicing RNs and, depending on the state in which they are licensed, can practice independently while PAs must practice under the supervision of a physician.

How collaborative is the relationship between MDs/DOs and NPs?

Although nurse practitioners are capable of handling most patient concerns without a physician’s guidance, they often seek their input. In some offices, the doctors will rotate acting as the NPs’ supervising physician, serving as an additional resource should they have questions or concerns. NPs also send patient charts to the supervising physician for review, giving the doctor a chance to examine the patient’s medical history and offer advice or alterations to their treatment plan. Every step taken by an NP and a physician is in the best interest of the patient to ensure proper care.

There may be a time when your primary care physician is unable to see you on short notice, and the office may ask if you would like to see a Nurse Practitioner. With increasing demands for healthcare services, NPs have helped fill the gap between provider supply and patient demand. There is no question that Nurse Practitioners are fully qualified and capable of providing excellent care. NPs are extensively educated and certified to provide care services independently or in combination with the care of a doctor.