The position of nurse practitioner, or NP, first rose to prominence in the 1960s and has become increasingly important in recent years. A shortage of physicians, both in the US and around the world, combined with an ever-increasing demand for healthcare and a huge rise in the number of chronic diseases, means that the role is constantly evolving, as NPs take on more responsibility and enjoy greater autonomy.
In addition to significant changes in the makeup of healthcare staff and patient demographics, medical technology is also developing rapidly. A wide array of innovations, from digitalization and digital monitoring to healthcare apps and artificial intelligence, are helping to transform the industry. If managed well, they can reduce costs, improve patient outcomes, and help NPs increase their scope of care.
This article will examine the latest trends in the role of a nurse practitioner and analyze the positive impacts these can have on patient care. In addition, it will look at the qualifications needed to become a nurse practitioner and the best ways to develop the skills and knowledge required to meet the challenges of the ever-changing healthcare landscape.
Increasingly important role
Just like registered nurses (RNs), nurse practitioners fulfill a variety of roles in the healthcare system. They typically perform a range of standard nursing duties, such as recording the patient’s history and current and past symptoms, carrying out routine and detailed examinations, and monitoring the patient’s long-term progress. At the same time, they usually take on a range of additional responsibilities, such as prescribing treatments, ordering tests, and diagnosing patients. In many cases, they supervise and manage nurses and other staff members and may even run their own practice. Naturally, even in areas where NPs enjoy greater autonomy, they should always have a secure support structure in place to ensure that patients can access the right specialist care whenever needed.
Nurse practitioners are now granted full autonomy in more than half of US states, enabling NPs in these areas to operate practices and provide a wide range of care without physician oversight. Though their ability to operate completely independently is more limited in other states, even there, the tendency is for them to enjoy an ever-greater level of autonomy and responsibility. This trend is reflected in a number of other countries, where nurse practitioners are not only increasingly common but are often handed a number of tasks that would have been performed solely by a physician in the past.
In part, this is a response to help combat a lack of available health staff, in particular primary care physicians. Another challenge is the issue of aging populations faced by almost all Western countries. Indeed, many experts see the increase in older populations and the subsequent rise in the number of acute and chronic conditions that need to be treated and all that this entails as one of the great challenges of our time. This problem is further exacerbated by the lower number of full-time employees contributing taxes, which means there is a constant battle to secure available resources.
It should be no surprise that having an NP on hand to diagnose and treat patients can be a huge boost to healthcare institutions and the patients that attend them, particularly in smaller practices. Patients can not only access care more easily, but they can also begin treatment earlier, potentially improving health outcomes immeasurably. This is particularly important in countries like the US, where millions still have limited access to healthcare.
Better outcomes through diversity
In addition, nurse practitioners are also becoming increasingly involved in medical research, as well as diagnosis. This is undoubtedly a positive step, as the greater involvement of more nursing staff in these areas increases the diversity of approach, meaning that we are likely to gain a greater understanding. To take one example, two physicians and an NP could potentially provide more insight into the diagnosis of a physical ailment than three physicians, with the greater variety of training and experience helping to produce different points of view and, therefore, a more complete understanding of the issue at hand.
This is partly because physicians tend to be trained and provide care according to the medical model, which means they are primarily focused on testing, diagnosing, and treating the disease and usually specialize in a particular branch of medicine. Nurse practitioners, on the other hand, are trained and provide care using the nursing model, so although they are also concerned with treating the disease, they are primarily focused on the patient.
Indeed, it is also thought that the increase in the number of nurse practitioners may help to lead to a more patient-centered approach, something that is not only more appealing to patients, who generally enjoy a more personal touch but has also been found to help improve health outcomes in the longer term. This is because it offers targeted care and treatment based on individual symptoms and a wide range of other variables, such as lifestyle choices, related physical and mental health issues, and environmental factors. This approach can help both the medical team and the patient address the symptoms at hand and work hard to tackle any underlying issues.
Speaking of diversity, there is also a rise in the number of qualified male NPs. This is positive not only because of the aforementioned strength of a wide variety of opinions and thoughts but also because medical institutions can offer an alternative to patients who would prefer to be treated by a male (not untypical in men’s health).
The rise in popularity of telehealth as a viable alternative to face-to-face care is also helping to shape the role of nurse practitioners today. Indeed, since the advent of Covid, this method of providing care has moved from niche to mainstream. Although some patients fear losing the personal touch with their healthcare providers, innovations such as telehealth should be seen as a useful addition to personal care, not as a replacement. NPs, in particular, have been shown to be adept at these new forms of communication. In many cases, patients have become familiar and comfortable with this new form of healthcare.
Indeed, given the new awareness of the importance of lowering the spread of infectious diseases, not to mention the knowledge that almost all medical professionals are almost always short of time, the ability to provide care remotely is truly valuable. It is particularly useful for less serious issues such as colds or other respiratory illnesses, where often the solution is a simple one, and also for some chronic issues, such as back pain or diabetes, where the case is already known, and medication can be safely issued without the need for a face-to-face consultation.
Naturally, a reasonable grasp of the relevant tech is vital to any NP offering telehealth services, and the rising importance of a high level of technical skills is another noticeable trend. In addition to being able to handle services like Teams, Zoom, and Google Meet, NPs are today expected to be adept at operating a wide range of computer systems, not to mention health apps, digital and wearable medical devices, and predictive analytics.
There are, of course, a wide range of other innovations and technical advances whose future implications are not yet known. Artificial intelligence and machine intelligence, in particular, are likely to instigate sweeping changes to healthcare in the near future, in everything from patient monitoring and diagnostics to inputting medical records and even financial management. One thing is for sure: a firm grasp of technical matters and the ability to stay flexible and adapt will continue to be a huge plus for NPs.
In addition to combatting and embracing technological evolution, increased specialization is becoming increasingly common in nursing , and for nurse practitioners in particular. One difference to physicians is that prospective nurse practitioners often – though not always – look to specialize in particular patient groups, such as families or senior citizens, rather than specific fields of medicine.
At the same time, we have also seen nurse practitioners become involved in other fields, such as mental health or prenatal care. Again, the benefits for patients are obvious. Mental health, for example, has been one of the fastest-growing sectors of the healthcare industry for decades, and with the dramatic influx of mental health patients, staff shortages are particularly acute in this field, not just in the US but across the world.
Of course, in an ideal world, every patient would be treated by their own dedicated team of physicians and nurses – perhaps with a personal masseuse on hand at all times – but obviously, that is not the case. Just like in general healthcare, NPs working in the field of mental health, oncology, or any other specialization can provide vital support to doctors, step in to give consultations, diagnosis, and treatment whenever appropriate and necessary, improves the scope of treatment medical institutions can offer, and also serve as a bridge between physicians and nursing staff.
A promising career
In most developed and even developing countries, the demand for qualified healthcare professionals outstrips supply in almost all cases. Similarly, demand for nurse practitioners is also expected to grow in the future as countries and individual medical institutions look to resolve staff shortages and work hard to make good healthcare more accessible to all.
Happily for NPs, in most cases, we can also expect this rising demand to lead to a commensurate increase in pay. According to the US National Bureau of Labor Statistics, NPs currently enjoy an average salary of US 123,000, and with increased demand, we can expect a rising trend in this area. Indeed, the opportunity for higher pay is one reason nurses undergo further training as nurse practitioners.
As mentioned above, the higher level of responsibility is also extremely attractive to many nurses. The pressure is higher, but the ability to make independent decisions and, in many cases, take the lead in the diagnosis and treatment of patients is a significant plus. Indeed, several studies have shown that the greater autonomy afforded to NPs leads to higher overall job satisfaction compared to RNs and other health professionals.
Given these trends, it is perhaps no surprise that more and more nurses are considering qualifying as nurse practitioners. As a choice of career path, it makes sense not only for experienced nurses who would like to extend their depth of knowledge, level of responsibility, and scope of care but also for younger nurses who want to look to build a viable long-term career option with better pay and increased autonomy. There are also more courses available, many offering the chance to specialize in a specific area. For example, earning a Family Nurse Practitioner certificate qualifies you to operate as an NP and develop a specialist knowledge and skills related to family practice.
Many working nurses, in particular, choose to complete an FNP certificate program online, as it enables students to continue a full or part-time job as they study. The FNP course at Carson-Newman University, for example, helps prospective FNPs train for the profession in their own time through virtual classes over two years, with clinical experience also provided to ensure that students can step immediately into a nurse practitioner role upon graduation.
By investing in the right qualification, nurses can develop a holistic advanced practice nursing skill set, demonstrate independent decision-making and critical thinking skills through evidence-based practice, and learn how to define their own career path by focusing their practice on primary health care for families and gaining deeper insight into health care policy, technology, and research.
After completing their qualifications, the best NPs seek to remain as up-to-date and knowledgeable about their profession as possible. In addition to on-the-job training and in-house courses, nurse practitioners also have access to a range of additional resources, from various online portals to, in the US, the American Association of Nurse Practitioners. The AANP organizes regular conferences for its members to attend and share knowledge, advice, clinical reference tools and important updates on policy developments and the latest medical guidelines.
A great challenge
We all know the importance of doctors and nurses, but very few of us have the tenacity, intelligence, and durability to not only undergo the many years of medical training but also to be able to weather the demands of these challenging professions. From the staff shortages that place greater pressure on the nursing profession to aging populations, an ever-rising number of chronic diseases, and a raft of new technologies that are changing the way that healthcare is delivered, times could hardly be more testing. But with great challenges come great opportunities, and many of these trends also point to an exciting future for nurse practitioners.
The increased trust afforded the profession in many US states and other countries around the world is also a significant sign of the esteem in which nurse practitioners are held. This recognition of their importance and the willingness to enable them to perform medical duties with a high level of responsibility indicates that they will take on an even more prominent role in the future.
Even more positively, the nurse practitioner profession, in particular, is designed to provide health professions, patients and healthcare institutions with greater flexibility and exceptional patient-centered care. In so many areas of healthcare, nurse practitioners make vital contributions and provide crucial medical aid, sometimes where the patient would have had a limited chance of receiving it otherwise. Indeed, if enough nurses can rise to the challenge and work hard to provide an even higher level of healthcare, the outcomes for patients can only be positive for many years to come.