What Is a Family Nurse Practitioner?

A female family nurse practitioner with a young patient and their mother

The Nurse Practitioner (NP) role was rapidly advancing when Cathy Smyser, GCU faculty, became a nurse in 1988. The role of the nurse practitioner is rooted in meeting the demand for access to quality care. While this profession was created in the 1960s, the advanced practice role was not on Cathy’s mind as she approached her professional career. She writes, “I was drawn to nursing to help care for people, to assist them in achieving comfort in suffering and help them achieve the best state of health possible.”

Cathy was able to meet her goals working in a variety of healthcare environments, including a hospital, long term care and her patient’s home in the hospice setting. Cathy eventually became a family nurse practitioner and has been in family practice for the past nineteen years. She reflects, “I believe I was created for the FNP role! This career continues to be a source of personal joy and professional satisfaction for me. It has allowed me to come alongside my patients to make an even greater impact on their lives and well-being.”

What Does a Family Nurse Practitioner Do?

A family nurse practitioner, or FNP, is a registered nurse who has undertaken advanced education and clinical experiences in family practice in order to work with both children and adults. Like family practice medical doctors, FNPs work with patients on maintaining health and wellness. They generally focus on preventive care, health education and treating common ailments.

Family nurse practitioners usually work in either a clinical setting or a family practice office, sometimes alongside medical doctors. This means they may work more regular hours than critical care nurse practitioners, who work in hospital settings. Since many family nurse practitioners work in underserved communities, especially ones that have trouble attracting medical doctors, many states also allow FNPs to start their own clinics.1

Responsibilities of an FNP vary with the setting, but often include:2

  • Maintaining patient records 
  • Performing physical exams 
  • Ordering and performing diagnostic tests 
  • Prescribing medications 
  • Developing treatment plans 
  • Treating acute and chronic illnesses, conditions and injuries

Family nurse practitioners have the opportunity to work with members of a family over a long period of time, often seeing children grow into adolescents and young parents progress into their senior years. This familiarity with their patients’ histories allows FNPs to serve their patients in the best way possible while also building close community ties.

Why Become a Family Nurse Practitioner?

There are many reasons for a registered nurse to consider making the career shift to being a family nurse practitioner. Being an FNP can have many benefits and bring an RN a rewarding career that allows for deeper connections with patients, along with many other opportunities and advantages.


In many states, family nurse practitioners can run their own private practice. This allows them to work autonomously without being under the supervision of physicians or other clinic managers. Family nurse practitioners are granted this autonomy because they have the education to make diagnoses and develop comprehensive health plans for patients. They are also capable of supervising their own healthcare teams.

Prescription Writing

Unlike registered nurses, family nurse practitioners may prescribe medications and often have full prescriptive authority. This means they do not need oversight to prescribe medication for their patients. Prescription writing is another form of autonomy given to family nurse practitioners who have completed their advanced training. Keep in mind that some states have reduced practice for family nurse practitioners, which means they can prescribe medication only as long as they agree with a physician.

Job Stability

Healthcare is a growing field. Since family nurse practitioners are in high demand, especially in areas where family doctors and general practitioners are hard to find, clinics and hospitals are eager to recruit and retain qualified nurse practitioners. 

Patient Connection

Family nurse practitioners maintain relationships with patients for longer than most registered nurses. Registered nurses in a hospital or office setting work with patients for only a short time during an illness or health event. They work in tandem with a physician and do not always have the opportunity to form a personal connection with the patient. Because family nurse practitioners treat the whole family over time, they can collect robust family health histories to ensure proper treatment while forming a connection with each patient.


The additional education that a family nurse practitioner completes in order to work in the field qualifies some FNPs to become leaders in nursing. Some specialize in areas like patient education or research, and some choose to work in nursing education. These specializations can lead to further leadership roles, such as managing nursing staff or coordinating research efforts.

Skills of a Good Family Nurse Practitioner

Family nurse practitioners work with a diverse patient population, which requires them to have excellent interpersonal skills. They need to be able to communicate effectively both by listening attentively to their patients and by explaining healthcare options and treatment plans clearly.

Family nurse practitioners may also need to consult with registered nurses, medical doctors and other healthcare personnel about the treatment of a patient. This requires the ability to adjust their communication styles to a specific audience.

Other skills that a family nurse practitioner needs for a successful practice include: 

  • Empathy for patient concerns 
  • Critical thinking to make accurate and informed diagnoses 
  • Active listening to understand patient complaints 
  • Solid organization of materials and paperwork 
  • Research skills to learn more about patient symptoms and the latest medical research 
  • Collaboration with patients and other healthcare providers to create effective treatment plans

How to Become a Family Nurse Practitioner

Cathy Smyser shares her journey to becoming a family nurse practitioner, writing, “I had been a registered nurse (RN) for several years and often found myself being a liaison between the providers and the patients. I had encountered FNPs in my clinical settings and was intrigued with the role. My personal path was a difficult one  I completed my FNP program as a single parent of three, after being widowed. I share this to encourage others that may have challenges. The educational process is extremely rigorous, but with the grace that only God can provide — all things are possible! I successfully graduated in 2002 and this career continues to be fulfilling all these years later.”

This is a common path toward the career; a family nurse practitioner must start out as a registered nurse and then, at a minimum, earn a master's degree. While future FNPs can choose a program with a specialty, some nurse practitioner programs are generalized and do not offer tracks specifically for family practice. RNs who wish to go into family nursing may need to focus their clinical experience on family practice after graduation or obtain a certification specifically for FNPs.

After completing a master's degree, a family nurse practitioner must become certified in family practice. The exam that an FNP must take is given by either the American Nurses Credentialing Center or the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. An RN with a master's degree in nursing who has passed the exam can work as a certified family nurse practitioner.

What You Will Study While Earning an FNP Degree

FNP master’s degree programs focus on advanced practice, theory and experience to prepare professional nurses to become family nurse practitioners. The goal is to teach registered nurses the necessary skills to become primary care providers.

A master’s program for future FNPs requires time in the classroom as well as hundreds of hours of supervised clinical practice. Program participants perform many tasks in a healthcare setting, including: 

  • Conducting health assessments 
  • Performing wound care, including casting and splinting 
  • Interpreting radiological reports 
  • Learning about chronic disease management 
  • Analyzing detailed case studies

These case studies prepare family nurse practitioners to work with the diverse patient population that they may encounter when working in both urban and rural areas. Because FNPs work with patients of all ages, case study analysis also prepares them to practice with pediatric, adult and geriatric patients.

Clinical practice gives future FNPs the opportunity to make decisions as they would in their own practice. In this portion of the program, they work with both faculty members and other healthcare providers in a community-based or family health practice setting.

Most family nurse practitioner degree programs include practice or study in the following areas: 

  • Conducting health assessments 
  • Working with patients 
  • Applying research to practice 
  • Making diagnoses 
  • Studying advanced physiological and pathophysiological principles 
  • Determining the need for prescriptions 
  • Practicing cultural relevancy in healthcare 
  • Using data and healthcare informatics

GCU offers a variety of nursing and healthcare degrees through our College of Nursing and Health Care Professions. Learn more about our online nursing degree programs and what sets GCU apart by visiting our website or requesting more information using the button at the top of the page. 

Retrieved from:

1The American Association of Nurse Practitioners, State Practice Environment in June 2021. 

2The American Association of Nurse Practitioners, Are You Considering a Career as a Family Nurse Practitioner? in June 2021.

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.

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