Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) vs Nurse Practitioner (NP) 

After gaining experience in the nursing field, you may be ready to assume more responsibility. Becoming an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) allows you to do just that. APRNs are extensively trained to diagnose illnesses, deliver services, and care for patients. Ultimately, their education level affords them greater autonomy in the workplace. 

What’s the difference between an APRN and a nurse practitioner (NP)? NPs are one of four types of APRNs. The other types are certified nurse midwives (CNMs), clinical nurse specialists (CNSs), and certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs). Regardless of which APRN path you choose, these advanced certifications allow you to specialize in an area you feel passionately about—and make a deep impact on patients’ lives.

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  • Earn your MS in Nursing in as few as 23 months
  • Choose from one of four APRN specialty areas: AG-ACNP, FNP, NM/WHNP, or WHNP
  • Gain hands-on clinical experience in evidence-based practice

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  • Accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Preparation to pursue certification as a Family Nurse Practitioner
  • Part-time, full-time, and extended plans of study

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What is an APRN?

An APRN or advanced practice registered nurse is a nursing professional with specialized education for a specific patient population or skill set. At the very least, APRNs have a registered nurse (RN) license, clinical experience, and a master’s degree in nursing. Their advanced certification lets them diagnose illnesses, order lab tests, and prescribe medications in certain states. APRNs often develop strong, impactful relationships with their patients because of the in-depth care they provide. In addition to providing treatment, APRNs educate patients on preventative health care. 

Becoming an APRN gives you the opportunity to work with a specific patient population, making it possible for you to focus on a specific nursing interest. If you know you would like to work with children, for instance, you can become a clinical nurse specialist who’s certified in pediatrics. For those with the time and resources to pursue additional schooling, becoming an APRN may be one way to advance a career in nursing.

Pathway to Become an APRN

When deciding on which APRN program to pursue, it’s important to know which career you’d prefer. The first step toward becoming an APRN is enrolling in an accredited Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program. There is an abundance of options to choose from, like online MSN programs that allow you to earn your degree from the comfort of your home. 

The flexibility in higher education means you can attend school part-time while continuing to work—or even expedite your schooling through an accelerated program. If you’re an RN without a bachelor’s degree, an online RN to MSN program allows you to attain an MSN without going back to school to finish your BSN first.

Upon completing an MSN degree, you’ll need to achieve certification in your APRN specialty. A variety of professional organizations offer certifications, including the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC), the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN), and the American Midwifery Certification Board (AMCB). After becoming certified, you will need to secure a license in the state where you intend to practice. Requirements differ between states, so it’s best to check with yours beforehand.

What is a Nurse Practitioner?

A nurse practitioner (NP) is a type of APRN. These nursing professionals diagnose and manage acute and chronic diseases, perform physical assessments, create treatment plans, and even prescribe medications in certain states. NPs specialize in one of several areas: adult-gerontology primary care, adult-gerontology acute care, neonatal nursing, pediatrics, psychiatric mental health, women’s health, and family nursing.

Like other APRN career paths, becoming a nurse practitioner entails obtaining a master’s or post-graduate degree in nursing, certification, and licensure. It’s important to recognize the time and financial commitment necessary to become an NP—but this may be a worthy investment if you’re ready to take your nursing career to the next level.

Pathway to Become a Nurse Practitioner

Your NP career starts off with obtaining relevant education and training. Before enrolling in any NP program, make sure it’s accredited. Accredited nurse practitioner programs come in online and in-person formats, as well as part-time and full-time study options, so it’s possible to find one that best fits your schedule.

As an NP, you can work in a variety of specialty fields, and there are programs that can prepare you to do just that. If you’re interested in providing care to women across the lifespan, you may consider a women’s health nurse practitioner (WHNP) program. And if you want to work with patients suffering from acute conditions such as respiratory distress syndrome, then you may want to look into completing one of the many available acute care nurse practitioner (ACNP) programs.
Upon completion of a program, you will have to become certified in your specialty by a board like the ANCC or the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP). Certification requirements typically involve an exam, completion of an accredited program, an academic transcript, a minimum number of clinical hours, a nursing license, and a certification fee.

Sponsored Online Nursing Programs

Sponsored

Earn an MS in Nursing online from Georgetown University.

  • Earn your MS in Nursing in as few as 23 months
  • Choose from one of four APRN specialty areas: AG-ACNP, FNP, NM/WHNP, or WHNP
  • Gain hands-on clinical experience in evidence-based practice

Earn a Master of Science in Nursing online from Simmons University.

  • Accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE)
  • Preparation to pursue certification as a Family Nurse Practitioner
  • Part-time, full-time, and extended plans of study

Earn your MSN online from USC’s Top-Ranked School of Social Work.

  • Prepares RNs to pursue board certification as family nurse practitioners
  • Earn a CCNE-accredited MSN in as few as 21 months
  • Choose from part-time and full-time study options

Sponsored

Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) vs Nurse Practitioner (NP) – What’s the Difference?

An NP is one of the four types of APRNs. If you’re interested in pursuing further education and becoming an APRN, it’s helpful to know the differences between each specialty so you can choose a program that fits your interests.

Education and Curriculum

Both NPs and other types of APRNs achieve either an MSN degree or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree. Within these degree programs, students can pursue tracks for particular NP and APRN specialties. Admissions requirements vary by university, but you typically need an RN license, a minimum number of recent clinical hours, and a bachelor’s degree in nursing—unless pursuing an accelerated program. 

Accelerated nursing programs make it possible for you to transition to the field of nursing with a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field. If you’re an RN without a BSN, accelerated programs may also make it easier for you to become an APRN and finish a master’s program. In addition to accelerated programs, there are a number of flexible nursing degree options for students with an array of educational backgrounds. There are dual degree MSN programs for students interested in a second field outside of nursing, and post-graduate certificate options for those who would like to start working with a new patient population and make a shift in their expertise within the nursing field. 

At many universities, APRN programs share core courses in epidemiology, ethics, and advanced pharmacology, among others. However, each specialty has additional courses tailored to the patient population. A WHNP, for instance, may take courses in reproductive health and childbearing. Meanwhile, an adult-gerontology CNS may have a course about common problems in elderly patients.

Skills and Certification

NPs share many of the same skills and education experience as other APRNs, both having completed a master’s, post-graduate, or doctoral degree. However, each is prepared to handle different patient populations, and they acquire different skills to do so. 

While nurse practitioners focus on providing quality primary care to patients, clinical nurse specialists are more involved in evaluating nursing interventions for a particular population or disease. Certification exams will therefore be tailored to each specialty to ensure the nurse is competent in the area they studied.

Specialties

Under the category of APRNs are four career tracks. In this section, we dive into each one and expand on different nursing specializations so you can better understand the options available. 

Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs) 

  • Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS): These nurses are involved in the entire spectrum of nursing, from patient care to the hospital system. The clinical nurse specialist can specialize in patient populations, settings, diseases, and types of care. In addition to managing patients, clinical nurse specialists ensure that best practices are being carried out by nurses throughout the organization in which they work, making this a viable career path for those interested in serving as a consultant, researcher, and educator in their specialty. 
  • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA): CRNAs are in charge of administering anesthesia to patients and monitoring their vital signs throughout procedures. Because patients require attentive care during surgical procedures, this realm of nursing requires a high-level of specialization. For that reason, CRNAs make the most of any nursing role, earning an average annual salary of $174,790, according to 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data. 
  • Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM): As a certified nurse midwife, you’ll have the job of helping women through pregnancy and childbirth upon completion of a midwifery program. They monitor fetal development, educate mothers on childcare and breastfeeding, and perform routine women’s health screenings, among other responsibilities. This advanced nursing path may be a good fit for those interested in studying women’s reproductive health. 
  • Nurse Practitioner (NP): NPs have a wide scope of practice in many states, ranging from prescribing medicine to practicing independently. They perform a role similar to primary care physicians—diagnosing illnesses, delivering primary care, and educating patients on disease prevention. 

Nurse Practitioner Specialties

  • Acute Care Nurse Practitioner (ACNP): ACNPs can specialize in adult-gerontology acute care or pediatric acute care. In this specialty, nurse practitioners provide immediate medical attention to patients with pressing health concerns. They diagnose and treat injuries in child, adult, or elderly patients, depending on their area of expertise. 
  • Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP): According to AANP, nearly 67% of nurse practitioners are FNPs. FNPs provide health care to patients across ages, overseeing routine checkups, physicals, and diagnoses upon completion of an on campus or online family nurse practitioner program. They also can focus on particular illnesses, like diabetes or pain management. 
  • Pediatric Nurse Practitioner (PNP): PNPs manage acute and chronic illnesses in children, from newborns to young adults. They often deliver health care services in pediatric offices, clinics, and schools. 
  • Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner (WHNP): WHNPs are experts in women’s health care. They deliver a number of preventative and checkup services—breast cancer screenings, contraceptive care, prenatal exams—to women of all ages, making them a key component of women’s reproductive and gynecological health. 
  • Psychiatric and Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP): These nursing professionals assess the mental health of their patients, make diagnoses, and create corresponding treatment plans. This can be a demanding specialty, but working as a PMHNP may be rewarding too—you belong to a team of health care experts dedicated to making a critical difference in their patients’ lives.

Scope and Work Setting 

In medicine, scope of practice is the range of responsibilities a practitioner is authorized to take on. The scope of practice varies for each APRN specialty. However, in most states, APRNs can diagnose and treat acute and chronic illnesses, provide preventative services, and order lab tests. Some APRNs, including nurse practitioners, can prescribe medications and practice independently in certain states. Across the board, these nurses provide important, comprehensive care for their patients and have a high-level of medical knowledge. 

APRNs can work in a wide range of settings, including hospitals, private offices, surgical centers, and health clinicals. Some nurses deliver services within patients’ homes, depending on the patients’ medical conditions and needs.

Salary and Career Outlook

Employment opportunities for nurse practitioners and other APRNS are expected to grow considerably in the coming years. The BLS projects a 52% increase in jobs for NPs, a 14% increase for CRNAs, and a 12% increase for CNMs between 2019 and 2029—which are much faster growth rates than the average 5% increase across industries. Advanced nursing roles also have an above-average earning potential. For instance, the BLS reports that NPs make a mean annual salary of $111,840, and nurse anesthetists can make even more. 

Income for these professions varies by state and city. Nurse practitioners have the highest employment in New York, California, Texas, Florida and Ohio—but earn the most working in California, Washington, Hawaii, New Jersey, and Minnesota, according to BLS.

Continuing Education Requirements

Once you complete your APRN certification, you’ll have to renew it regularly. Most professional organizations, including the AANP, require you to renew every five years. Generally, you can choose whether to recertify by exam or clinical practice hours and continuing education credits. You will also need to maintain your RN license to recertify.

If you’re interested in furthering your education after completing an MSN program, a DNP program may be for you. DNP programs allow you to continue studying your APRN specialty—and will prepare you to educate and consult others on your field. Whether you’re hoping to continue clinical practice after graduation or share your nursing insights beyond the health care setting, a doctoral program can shape you into a leader in your field.

Information on this page was last retrieved in August 2020.