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What is a Nurse Practitioner?

By Rebecca Conroy, FNP-BC

A nurse practitioner (NP) is an advanced practice nurse who usually has a few years of experience as a registered nurse (RN) in a hospital or other setting before returning to school to obtain a Master’s Degree. A Master’s Degree typically takes two years, during which the nurse learns to perform a variety of procedures, such as suturing (sewing up cuts), as well as how to diagnose and treat medical conditions. The nurse practitioner learns to make prevention, wellness and individualized care the priority.

A nurse practitioner can provide many different health care services. Most often, NPs work closely with physicians, nurses and other clinic specialists to take care of patients. The emphasis of a nurse practitioner is both cure and holistic care. NP education and training focuses on not only medical problems, but also the state of the family, the environment and the other aspects of a patient's life. NPs certainly do not have a corner on the caring market, all health care providers care about their patients. NP training and education simply emphasizes this holistic view of a person. A nurse practitioner can serve as a primary health care provider for most patients in the United States. NPs can write prescriptions as needed and order testing to diagnose issues or to monitor ongoing issues.

Nurse practitioners cannot practice outside of something called the "scope of practice." This means that a nurse practitioner who was educated in mental health cannot start diagnosing and treating diabetes. That is outside of his or her scope of practice. Nurse practitioners also cannot perform any procedure that they have not been trained to perform, and they cannot prescribe medications that are unfamiliar to them. This means, as a patient, you may be referred to a physician, a specialist, or another healthcare provider in order to assure the best treatment for you. If you are unsure why you need the referral, just ask.

Some interesting facts about nurse practitioners:

  • Nurse practitioners have been around since the 1960s.
  • There are about 135,000 NPs practicing in the US today.
  • Nurse Practitioners can prescribe medications in most states.
  • The pinnacle of nursing practice is nurse practitioner, so the term mid-level provider is not very accurate, but it is handy.
  • Nurse practitioners and physician assistants have similar responsibility in the same setting, hence the term mid-level provider.
  • We don't want you to call us doctor, we aren't doctors. If you do, we figure you must be confused about who we are. We usually introduce ourselves in the way we'd like to be addressed. If not, just ask. Please don't be offended when we correct you. We respect the title doctor and believe it should be reserved for those with doctoral degrees or medical degrees.

The internet is a great source of additional information if you are interested in knowing more. And you can always ask your friendly neighborhood NP about the profession. It's a great conversation starter.

Rebecca Conroy is a nurse practitioner with Community Physician Group in Stevensville, a part of Community Medical Center.