What is a Nurse Practitioner?

A nurse practitioner (or NP) is a registered nurse (RN) that has finished advanced education, with a minimum of a master’s degree. They have been trained in the diagnosis and management of common medical conditions, as well as chronic illnesses. They give a wide range of health care services, and provide some of the same care given by physicians and keep close working relationships with them. A nurse practitioner may also be a person’s regular healthcare provider.

Nurse practitioners see people of all ages. They have a core philosophy of individualized care, and focus on a patient’s conditions as well as any effects due to illness on the lives of patients and their families. Nurse practitioners will also make prevention, wellness, and education of the patient their priorities—some examples of this might include fewer prescriptions or less expensive treatment. Giving patients information about their health care and encouraging someone to take part in decisions are crucial to the care that nurse practitioners provide their patients. On top of health care services, they also do research and are often very active in patient advocacy activities.

Since the profession is regulated by the state, the care that nurse practitioners provide can vary. Their duties, however, include the following:

  • Working with physicians and other health professionals as needed, including giving referrals.
  • Counseling and educating patients on health behaviors, self-care skills and treatment options.
  • Diagnosing and treating acute illnesses, infections and injuries
  • Diagnosing, treating and monitoring chronic diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure.
  • Obtaining medical histories and conducting physical exams.
  • Ordering, performing and interpreting diagnostic studies (lab tests, x-rays EKGs)
  • Prescribing medications
  • Prescribing physical therapy and other rehabilitation treatments
  • Providing prenatal care and family planning services
  • Providing well-child care, like screening and immunizations
  • Providing health maintenance care for adults, including annual physicals

Nurse Practitioners and Women’s Health

A nurse practitioner can be a woman’s primary health care provider when she has typical health care needs, but those with serious conditions, especially that require surgery, should get the help of a physician. However, some NPs have a specific focus in the areas of obstetrics and gynecology, and provide the following services:

  • Care before and after menopause
  • Contraceptive care
  • Evaluation and treatment of common vaginal infections
  • Health and wellness counseling
  • Midwifery
  • Physical exams, including pap smears
  • Pregnancy tests and care before, during, and after pregnancy
  • Screening and referral for other health issues
  • STD screening and follow-up

As you can see, there’s a lot that nurse practitioners have the ability to do, and a lot of hats they tend to wear. And while we won’t cover it here, obviously there is a lot of education and training they have to complete in order to get to that point. They may not have the letters. M.D. at the end of their names, but they are often just as important to our health care as doctors and physicians themselves.