When GCU faculty member Cathy Smyser became a nurse in 1988, the role of the nurse practitioner (NP) role was rapidly advancing. Today, the role of the nurse practitioner is rooted in meeting the demand for access to quality care, but although 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 patients’ homes in a hospice setting. Cathy eventually became a family nurse practitioner (FNP) 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?
An FNP is a registered nurse with an FNP degree who has undergone advanced education and clinical experiences in family practice to work with both children and adults. Like family practice medical doctors, FNPs work with patients to maintain health and wellness. They generally focus on preventive care, health education and treating common ailments.
Family nurse practitioners usually work in a clinical setting or family practice office, sometimes alongside medical doctors. This means that they may work more regular schedules compared to critical care nurse practitioners, who work in hospital settings that can be hectic and highly demanding. Because many family nurse practitioners work in underserved communities — especially communities that have trouble attracting medical doctors — many states also allow FNPs to start their own clinics.1
The 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 can work with the members of a family over a long period of time, often watching as 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 (RN) to consider making the career shift to becoming a family nurse practitioner by getting their FNP degree. As far as salary expectations go, nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners have a median annual wage of $117,670 as of May 2020.3 Being an FNP can have many benefits and can bring an RN a rewarding career that allows for deeper connections with patients, along with many other opportunities and advantages.
Options for Working Autonomously
In many states, FNPs can run their own private practices, which allows them to work autonomously without the supervision of physicians or other clinic managers. Family nurse practitioners are granted this autonomy because they have the proper education to make diagnoses and develop comprehensive health plans for patients. They are also capable of supervising their own healthcare teams.
Ability To Write Prescriptions
Unlike registered nurses, FNPs may prescribe medications and often have full prescriptive authority. This means they do not need oversight to prescribe medication for their patients. Writing prescriptions 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 FNPs, which means they can prescribe medication only as long as they collaborate and/or are supervised by the physician.
Develop and Maintain Patient Relationships
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 FNPs treat the whole family over time, they can collect robust family health histories to ensure proper treatment while forming a connection with each patient.
Nursing Leadership Opportunities
The additional education that a family nurse practitioner completes 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 clearly explaining healthcare options and treatment plans.
FNPs 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 adapt their communication styles to a specific audience.
Other skills that an FNP 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 has shared her own 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.”
What You Will Study in Your FNP Degree
FNP 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 an FNP degree 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 faculty members as well as other healthcare providers in a community-based or family health practice setting.
Most FNP 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
Career Outlook for FNPs
Healthcare is a growing field. Because 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.
As of September 2021, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook estimates job growth for nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives and nurse practitioners to increase by about 45% from 2020 to 2030, faster than average, accounting for an estimated increase of 121,400 jobs in the field.4 With this promising growth comes the opportunity for more aspiring FNPs to take the next step by furthering their education and their career.
GCU offers a variety of nursing and healthcare degrees through our College of Nursing and Health Care Professions. Learn more about how to become an FNP by visiting our MSN FNP program page. Discover what sets GCU apart by requesting more information using the button at the top of the page.
1 Retrieved from The American Association of Nurse Practitioners, State Practice Environment in June 2021.
2 Retrieved from The American Association of Nurse Practitioners, Are You Considering a Career as a Family Nurse Practitioner? in June 2021.
3 The earnings referenced were reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (“BLS”), Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners as of May 2020. Due to COVID-19, data from 2020 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may also impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the BLS. BLS calculates the median using salaries of workers from across the country with varying levels of education and experience and does not reflect the earnings of GCU graduates as Nurse Practitioners. It does not reflect earnings of workers in one city or region of the country. It also does not reflect a typical entry-level salary. Median income is the statistical midpoint for the range of salaries in a specific occupation. It represents what you would earn if you were paid more money than half the workers in an occupation, and less than half the workers in an occupation. It may give you a basis to estimate what you might earn at some point if you enter this career. You may also wish to compare median salaries if you are considering more than one career path.
4 COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is based on September 2021, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners.
Approved by Associate Dean for Graduate programs College of Nursing & Healthcare Professions on Nov. 7, 2022.
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.