Family Nurse Practitioner: Primary Care Provider

Deciding to Become a Family Nurse Practitioner

Are you still in the research phase of finding out how to become a nurse? Maybe you are debating whether you should obtain an associate or bachelor's degree or considering the advantages of traditional campus nursing programs versus the convenience of earning nursing degrees online.

Wherever you are in the process of making your nursing career decisions, it is never too soon to think about some of the areas in which you could specialize once you have been a registered nurse (RN) for a while. Many RNs who have a few years of experience go back to school to obtain a master's or doctoral degree so they can find even more rewarding work.

Advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), for example, can often realize career growth, employment opportunities, and improved compensation. APRNs pursue work as:

  • Clinical nurse specialists
  • Nurse anesthetists
  • Midwives
  • Various types of nurse practitioners

Of the latter, the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) says that nearly half (48.9 percent) are family nurse practitioners (FNPs).

Kathy Hemer, a Family Nurse Practitioner with Memorial Health Center in Medford, Wis., has been in health care for twenty years. She recommends that you work for a couple of years as an RN before deciding what you want from your career. If you like the idea of working independently and putting your energy into treating patients who want to be healthier, the role of an FNP could be just what you're looking for.

What Does a Family Nurse Practitioner Do?

According to Kathryn Ellis, Director of the Family Nurse Practitioner program at Georgetown University's School of Nursing, the FNP's essential role is to prevent disease.

Nurse practitioners in family practice function as primary care providers and work with patients of all ages. They can perform many of the same health care services once considered the domain of a family doctor:

  • Examine, screen and assess patient health
  • Order and/or administer diagnostic tests such as lab work or x-rays
  • Provide preventative care such as immunizations
  • Perform routine check-ups and minor surgical treatments
  • Establish an ongoing patient and health care provider relationship
  • Prescribe medications and other treatments and therapy for acute or chronic illness
  • Instruct patients in preventing disease and managing ongoing health concerns

Ellis says that treating patients of various ages with different health care needs always keeps the work interesting and challenging. The nature of primary care also allows FNPs to build ongoing health care relationships with many patients as they work with them one-on-one to achieve improved health over a period of time.

Educational Requirements for Becoming a Family Nurse Practitioner

According to the AANP, in addition to licensure as a registered nurse from the state in which you plan to practice as an FNP, you must earn at least a graduate nursing degree, such as a master's of science in nursing (MSN). You also need national certification as a nurse practitioner from an institution that is accredited by either the American Board of Nursing Specialties or the National Commission for Certification Agencies. Certification is necessary to work as a family nurse practitioner.

If you are not already a registered nurse or if you do not already have the educational qualifications for licensure--usually a bachelor's of science in nursing (BSN)--you may not be qualified to apply for a family nurse practitioner graduate degree program. If your bachelor's degree is in a discipline other than nursing, you must first complete the education to become an RN. However, if you have already earned a master's degree in another nursing specialization, you can work on a post-master's certificate upon completion of NP-program requirements.

NP programs at accredited institutions may offer a master's, post-master's or, at a growing number of institutions, a doctoral degree. Currently, more than 150 programs offer the doctor of nursing practice (DNP). In the future, the DNP degree may be required for nurse practitioners of all specialties, including family practice.

You can get more information and resources through the AANP website. AANP, formed from the merger of the American College of Nurse Practitioners and the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners is "the largest, full-service national professional membership organization for NPs of all specialties."

Where Will You Work and How Much Can You Earn?

According to O*NET Online, job growth for APRNs like the FNP is expected to explode--20 to 28 percent for the period 2010 to 2020. The AANP reports there are more than 171,000 NPs in the U.S. and approximately 83,000 of these are family nurse practitioners. With the changes in health care legislation, more primary care providers are needed to provide preventative care for all of the newly insured individuals and families who need health care.

Salaries for full-time nurse practitioners are not broken out into specialties, but according to the 2011 AANP annual compensation survey they average an annual income of $98,760.

Family nurse practitioners, according to Ellis, may work in private practice, community-based clinics, and retail-based clinics. In addition to Ellis' responsibilities as a director of the university nursing program, for example, she also works as an FNP with the homeless population. Hemer works in a medical center that serves a large rural area.

Wherever you work, the AANP tells prospective nurse practitioners that they can offer "a unique perspective to health services" by putting emphasis "on both care and cure" and "focusing on the whole person."