What Is the Difference Between FNP and ACNP?

Family nurse practitioner asking teenage patient questions about her health

There is no question that healthcare is a rewarding line of work. Not only do nurses make a difference in the lives of their patients every day, but there are also many opportunities to advance within the nursing field that can come with a variety of benefits.1

If you’re thinking about going back to school to advance your nursing qualifications, it’s time to consider your options for specializing. There are many specialized positions in the nursing field, including those of acute care nurse practitioner (ACNP) and family nurse practitioner (FNP). This detailed guide will help you compare the ACNP and FNP credentials and decide which specialty is best for you.

Types of Nurse Practitioners: ACNP vs. FNP

Nurse practitioners (NPs) are highly qualified medical professionals who work with patients of all ages. As their careers progress, some choose to step into leadership positions as administrators or managers. Others pursue advanced certification options, such as the FNP or ACNP designations.

What Is an Acute Care Nurse Practitioner?

An acute care nurse practitioner (ACNP) cares for patients who suffer from acute or critical conditions, in addition to chronic conditions, and often work in hospital settings. In an acute care setting, patients typically receive short-term care for issues such as:

  • Postsurgical recovery
  • Illness
  • Physical trauma
  • Life-threatening conditions

Some day-to-day responsibilities that an ACNP may encounter include:

  • Checking on patients and assessing their needs
  • Helping patients and their families understand their options
  • Examining and keeping patient records
  • Performing exams and tests
  • Keeping an eye out for any changes in a patient’s condition

One further specialization for this field is that of an adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner (AGACNP), who works with young adults, older adults and geriatric patients.2

In contrast, an adult-gerontology primary care nurse practitioner (AGPCNP) typically works at private practice clinics or community health clinics. These professionals emphasize preventive wellness and patient education, which can help patients make healthier lifestyle choices. AGPCNPs also help patients manage chronic conditions such as diabetes.

What Is a Family Nurse Practitioner?

A family nurse practitioner (FNP) works with families in a primary care setting. FNPs often help patients manage chronic medical conditions. FNPs may work with:

  • Young children
  • Teens
  • Adults
  • Seniors

An FNP is often the first point of contact for a patient suffering from an acute condition who has opted to seek primary care rather than emergency care. In this situation, the FNP may provide diagnostic services and preliminary care and refer the patient to an acute care setting.

Some potential duties of an FNP include:

  • Diagnosing and treating patients’ conditions
  • Prescribing medications and helping patients come up with care plans
  • Ordering tests and assessing lab results
  • Communicating and consulting with other healthcare professionals

Acute Care Nurse Practitioner vs. Family Nurse Practitioner Degree Paths

When looking into specialization options, it’s important to consider not only the main features of the ACNP and FNP paths but also the academic requirements for each specialization track.

How To Start a Career as an Acute Nurse Practitioner

The pathway to becoming an ACNP begins with a bachelor’s degree — specifically a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). Nurses then typically gain some work experience before going on to pursue a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). This degree is a requirement for all RNs who wish to become advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) such as ACNPs. These aspiring nursing professionals should also complete an MSN program that emphasizes acute care. 

After earning an MSN, the next step for aspiring ACNPs is to take an ACNP certification exam. These exams are available through either the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN) Certification Corporation or the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), which is a division of the American Nurses Association (ANA).

How To Start a Career as a Family Nurse Practitioner

Like an ACNP, an aspiring FNP must first earn a BSN in either a pre-licensure program or an RN to BSN program. After acquiring licensure, future FNPs must then earn an MSN designed for family nurse practitioners.

Graduates who have successfully completed an MSN degree program with an FNP specialization are prepared to tackle national board examinations. FNPs can become APRNs by passing certification exams. These exams may be administered by either the ANCC or the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners National Certification Board (AANPCB).

Do You Need a Master’s Degree To Become a FNP or ACNP?

Regardless of which area of specialization you choose, you will need to earn a Master of Science in Nursing Degree to become an APRN of any kind. Because RNs typically work long shifts, the challenges of earning a graduate degree may seem daunting. MSN programs typically offer a great deal of flexibility in acknowledgment of the fact that their students are active professionals who work in a demanding field.

One of the first things you should do when preparing to go back to school is talk to your employer. Many healthcare organizations offer tuition reimbursement to staff members who wish to refine their skills. Keep in mind that if you accept tuition reimbursement, you may be required to work for your employer for a certain length of time after graduation.

Next, look at your schedule to figure out how you’ll fit in classes and study time. Look for creative ways to carve out more time, such as taking public transportation to work so you can study on the bus or subway. If you plan out your schedule in advance, you’ll likely find it easier to juggle all of your responsibilities as a graduate nursing student.

Certification Renewal and Continuing Education

Regardless of whether you choose to become an FNP or an ACNP, you will be expected to pursue professional development and continuing education opportunities on an ongoing basis. All nurses are lifelong learners who must stay on top of the latest scientific research and developments in pharmacology. It’s good practice to set aside time each week to review the latest scientific findings in your subfield; this will enable you to deliver the best possible care to your patients.

The requirements for renewing a nursing certification vary and are subject to change over time. It’s best to check these with the professional organization that administered your certification exam. The organization should provide detailed information on how often renewal is required and how nurses can meet the continuing education criteria for renewal.

Whichever healthcare path you choose to pursue, you can find the right degree program for you at Grand Canyon University. GCU’s College of Nursing and Health Care Professions offers a variety of bachelor’s and master’s degrees, including the Master of Science in Nursing: Family Nurse Practitioner and the Post-Master of Science in Nursing: Acute Care Nurse Practitioner with an Emphasis in Adult-Gerontology Certificate. Click on Request Info at the top of your screen to explore these and other nursing program options.


Retrieved from:

1Nurse Career Tips, Benefits of Nursing Careers in September 2021

2American Association of Nurse Practitioners, Take a closer look at the role of an adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner (AGACNP) in August 2021 


Approved by Associate Dean, CONHCP, on 8/22/22

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.