Acute care nurse practitioners are members of a rapidly growing field of healthcare clinicians who share much of the same scope of practice as a medical doctor. Though they are not quite at that level, a nurse practitioner (NP) can work as a primary care provider or work on a critical care team. They are also able to diagnose patients and make recommendations to their treatment team.
It's not easy to become an acute care nurse practitioner, but the career is infinitely rewarding both in terms of status and salary. NPs also find that they enjoy tremendous job satisfaction while not having to endure the same long hours as others in the healthcare realm.
What is an Acute Care Nurse Practitioner?
An acute care nurse practitioner is a nursing professional who has taken their RN license and elevated it with a master's degree. Nurse practitioners enjoy a status that is close to that of medical doctors, with the ability to prescribe certain drugs, diagnose illness, and order laboratory tests. Specifically, an acute care professional administers aid to those with dire, acute conditions.
Steps to Become an Acute Care Nurse Practitioner:
The first, and possibly most important, step in becoming an acute care nurse practitioner is to decide that it is the profession for you. Many nursing students excel in subjects such as biology and other natural sciences. A strong mathematical and analytical mind will also serve you well. In fact, it might even be helpful to be an athlete in an active sport like basketball, volleyball, or field hockey. That is, those sports demand lightning-quick reflexes as well as a high level of hand-eye coordination, which you'll need in emergency situations.
Nursing is extremely demanding and requires a high level of patience. You also need to have a keen eye for detail and be prepared to follow strict protocols. As for the acute care specialty, you should work well under pressure and in high-intensity situations. Finally, you need to have the caring demeanor of a nurse.
The road to becoming a nurse practitioner begins with a bachelor's degree in nursing that will lead to a license as a registered nurse (RN). During your time in college, you will take a special set of courses that lead directly to licensure. Colleges that offer a degree in registered nursing should have a formalized curriculum that aligns with state mandates for licensure. Your degree program will surely include one or more experiential learning courses, where you apply your nursing knowledge and skill in real-world situations. These internships should focus your energies on your specialty field and thus prepare you to work as a professional.
Many nurse practitioners begin their working lives as RNs. When you start your career as a registered nurse you can learn a lot on the job, especially if you are in a critical care area, such as an emergency room. To maintain your RN credentials, you will need to complete continuing education units, which offer the opportunity to advance your knowledge in the critical care arena. You can surely find courses that focus on individual areas of critical care, such as pediatric acute care, adult-gerontology, and neonatal acute care. This way you can begin to discover which specific acute care specialty you wish to pursue. In fact, once you discover which specific population you wish to treat, you might find a job that focuses your energies in that area.
As your career progresses and you gain expertise in acute care situations, you may eventually wish to return to school to become an acute care nurse practitioner. With all of this experience and applicable CEU credit, you will find admission to a master's degree program much easier than if you were applying directly from your registered nursing bachelor's degree program.
To finally become a fully credentialed acute care nurse, you need to complete a graduate degree in advanced practice nursing from a nationally accredited program and complete all the licensing requirements to be considered a nurse practitioner. That includes holding a current, unencumbered RN or APRN (advanced-practice registered nurse) license, completing a graduate degree in advanced practice nursing, and passing scores on an examination.
To maintain your national certification and status as an acute care nurse practitioner and thus enter clinical practice, you will need to continue learning. Each licensure period you will be required to complete a certain number of CEU credits. These can be completed through a local university or the American Association of Critical Care Nurses. Frequently, CEUs are offered via online webinars, courses, and by way of in-person lectures or seminars. You might also be able to write articles related to your profession and complete a few credits that way.
What Does an Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Do?
Acute care nurse practitioners specialize in assisting patients who are in crisis situations. They help to treat flare-ups that arise from chronic conditions as well as isolated traumas, infections, or other acute and relatively isolated matters. Thus, acute care nurse practitioners are often found in hospital emergency rooms, clinics, and inpatient facilities.
While some NPs are able to oversee their own clinics under the license of an MD, acute care nurse practitioners most often work in larger organizations, such as a hospital. That is because they specialize in assisting patients who are in short-term, emergency situations. They are not involved in long-term care nor do they perform check-ups or other preventative forms of healthcare. That is not to say that an acute care NP can't discover and diagnose a chronic condition while an accident victim is receiving their critical care, but their primary scope of practice entails treating the acute trauma.
Acute care nurses can also work in long-term care facilities or fields, including adult gerontology. Though they might not work on long-term conditions such as dementia, they are on staff to address issues that may result from falls, heart attacks, or any sort of health emergency.
Skills to Acquire
- Patience: Nurses all have extraordinary levels of patience. When they face patients who are in their very worst moments, nurses need to assess the medical situation apart from potentially rude or untoward behavior on the part of the ailing individual.
- Diagnostic Ability: ACNPs need to be able to assess and diagnose patients so that they can receive the treatment they need the most.
- Pharmacology: ACNPs often need to recommend or prescribe medications. Thus, they need to be fully versed on medications, appropriate dosage, and more.
- Triage Procedures: These skills will likely be included in your RN training, but you will still need to administer IVs, perform minor surgical procedures, suture wounds, and understand how to administer defibrillators. Even if you have the RNs take care of these matters, you must know the proper protocols so that you can check their work or administer them yourself, when needed.
- Communication Skills: As part of a comprehensive treatment team, you will need to be able to communicate effectively not only with your patients, but also with your colleagues. This may include asking for second opinions or managing difficulties with a patient's records. Sometimes clear communication can determine the quality of care for any given patient.
Since acute care nurse practitioners are licensed medical professionals, there aren't many ways around the licensing process. All nurse practitioners must become registered nurses and then complete a master's degree to become nurse practitioners. Then every NP must pass an examination and maintain their license with continuing education units that satisfy their licensing agency.
However, nurses can approach the field in their own way. That is, some may start with associate degrees in a field such as medical assisting, certified nursing assistant (CNA), or licensed practical nursing (LPN). These nursing professionals might even practice at each level for a number of years before returning to school. This approach may take longer but might result in a stronger outlook on medicine and nursing. That is, when you are intimately familiar with each level of nursing you may have more empathy and care for those under you when you do become an NP.
There are also those who complete their bachelor's degree in nursing and then return to school to become RNs and then NPs. These professionals often say that they hear the call to nursing and thus make a career change that they never regret.
Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Careers and Salary
Where Might You Work?
Nurse practitioners work in a wide range of environments. Critical care and acute care nurses in particular may seem to be limited to the emergency department or intensive care units, but that is not the case. In fact, ACNPs work in the maternity ward, overseeing the care of newborns, with pediatric cases, and with adults and the geriatric.
In fact, they might even work with chronic patients who have acute issues. For instance, HIV patients can have emergencies arise where they are battling pneumonia or some other ailment. They might also work in long-term care facilities with the aged an infirm. Those patients seemingly face chronic ills, but they also have heart attacks, slips and falls, as well as other acute traumas and ailments.
As for their employers, most acute care nurse practitioners work for hospitals, most of which are privately held. They might also work for government hospitals such as the Veterans Administration, and some also hold rank as military medical personnel. There are also health systems that provide alternative care delivery systems, such as telephonic care. The nursing practice is ever evolving.
Nurse practitioners can decide to change their specialty if they choose. Some decide to leave acute care and enter into a general practice. These professionals can even run their own clinics, though they must partner with a medical doctor whose license covers the practice.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the career outlook for nurse practitioners is quite rosy. Not only do NPs enjoy strong earnings but their field is rapidly expanding. In fact, the median salary for these professionals is over $115,000 per year. The BLS also projects that their field will grow by 45% through 2029.
Physician assistants enjoy a similar career and are reported to have a median income of $112,000. They have similar training and scope of practice, contingent on individual specialty. Though PAs have a more medical focus, and their field is projected to grow by 31% through 2029.
Though there is a high demand for both nurse practitioners and physician assistants, their fields are still competitive. Nursing school is notoriously difficult to enter, but it is not by any means impossible. Schools and licensing boards are eager to have only the very best candidates join their fields.
There seems to be no shortage of demand for nurses at all levels and acute care nurse practitioners are not any exception. NP students surely will be recruited out of their programs, perhaps even before they finalize their licensing requirements. However, it's always important to know what the field has to offer so that you take the right job and thus launch the most successful career possible.
Here is a sampling of jobs that are currently listed as open. Keep in mind that this is a small, but representational sample.
- Hospitalist Nurse Practitioner: this job is for an acute-care nurse practitioner who wishes to work in a hospital. NPs may be asked to work in the ICU, if not the ER.
- Nurse Practitioner, Long-term Care: While not necessarily for acute-care specialists, this position is for NPs who work in preventative care and as primary care professionals. The ad for this particular position mentions palliative carePsychiatry Nurse Practitioner
- Psychiatry Nurse Practitioner: This is another career path for nurse practitioners to follow. This job is with a homeless shelter and requires 1-2 years of experience. The population is sure to present many interesting and difficult cases. They may also need an acute care NP on staff.
- Telephonic Nurse Practitioner: Even nurse practitioners can work from home these days. This position is for after-hours care and primarily targets elderly or disabled patients. In this position, you will evaluate and diagnose patients over the phone. When necessary, you will dispatch providers to the patient's home.
- Wound Care Nurse Practitioner: This position is in a skilled nursing facility. NPs will take care of wounds and will help patients avoid infection while expediting the healing process as much as possible.
Find a Nurse Practitioner Job Near You
Advancing from Here
Though acute care nurse practitioners generally stay at this level for the duration of their careers, there are plenty of options. One option is to shift into another specialty. NPs might become interested in psychiatry, for instance, and then take the necessary coursework and pass the exam to work in that field. Others could earn a family nurse practitioner certification and work to prevent disease and improve overall wellness in the community. Family NPs function as primary care providers. Yet another possibility is work as a pediatric nurse practitioner.
There's also the possibility to work towards a PhD in nursing. Many nurses pursue this degree in order to do research or to teach aspiring NPs. Some attain a doctoral degree and remain in their hospitals or clinics.
Finally, another option for NPs is to transition into administration. Since so many NPs function in a supervisory role, they might find that they'd rather retire their stethoscopes and return to school for a Master of Healthcare Administration.
Healthcare Career Paths