Nurse Practitioner in Primary Care Setting Career Guide

A primary care nurse practitioner (PCNP) is in a position to impact lives for the better. As a patient care provider,  the primary care nurse practitioner works one-on-one with individuals, families, and groups to manage their health. In this guide, we’ll explore the definition of a PCNP and answer your questions about becoming one—so you can determine if this is the right path for you.

What is a nurse practitioner in primary care?

A nurse practitioner (NP)—an autonomous nurse who may work independently of or in collaboration with another health professional, like a physician. This autonomy makes NP one of the more advanced roles you can achieve in nursing. Autonomy and scope of practice for nurse practitioners will vary by state.

The term ‘primary care’ refers to a patient’s main care provider—it’s the practice or office they visit for most common health concerns. A primary care nurse practitioner will assess a patient’s health, administer preventive care, and help to treat and manage general conditions. They will refer patients to a specialist if a more serious condition is discovered.

PCNPs may work in a wide range of care settings: hospitals, private practices, and clinics. They can work with individuals or groups of all ages, but will likely work with a certain population (such as children, adults, or the elderly). PCNPs must be well-equipped to analyze health data and recognize conditions and risks in the patients they work with. 

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How to Become a Nurse Practitioner in Primary Care Settings

If you want to become a nurse practitioner working in primary care settings, you’ll need to begin thinking about the process well in advance. Achieving this position requires you to follow a certain path and gain specific education, experience, skills, and credentials. Although we list some common steps here, be sure to check with your state requirements as well. 

1. Discover if you want to become a nurse practitioner. 

The most important question you can ask yourself is, “Do I want to become a nurse practitioner—and why?”. Is it because you enjoy helping people? Or do you crave the autonomy that comes with the job?

There are many nursing specialties you can pursue, from acute to primary care. Once you know for certain that PCNP is the direction you want to take, you can start off by pursuing an undergraduate degree in nursing and/or become a registered nurse (RN). 

2. Research NP program admissions requirements. 

Most degree programs require you to possess a bachelor’s degree in nursing, current licensure as an RN (which can be obtained by sitting for the NCLEX exam), and post-degree clinical experience for admissions. Learn more about how to get into nursing school.

3. Find an accredited nurse practitioner degree program. 

Seeking and completing an accredited program is arguably one of the most important steps in the path to becoming a PCNP. Accreditation ensures the quality of your program (and often means you’ll meet the job requirements of a nurse practitioner role). Check that a program is accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN), the primary private organizations providing oversight for NP programs.

4. Earn your Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). 

Becoming a nurse practitioner requires a master’s-level degree, and earning one can be a time commitment. But there are several flexible ways to complete your degree program, whether on-campus or online, full-time or part-time.

5. Apply for and obtain state nursing licensure. 

You will need to become a licensed nurse practitioner in the state where you intend to practice. Every state has a different nursing board and different ways to get licensed— learn about nursing licenses and requirements by state

6. Continue learning. 

Health care evolves at a rapid pace. As a nurse practitioner, part of your responsibilities will be keeping up with the latest advances in medicine and patient care. Pursuing additional certifications is one way to stay current, add to your expertise, and become more competitive in the hiring market.

Sponsored Online Nursing Programs

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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

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Pathways to Becoming a Nurse Practitioner in Primary Care

If you’re considering a career as a nurse practitioner, you’re probably wondering if there’s any flexibility in the pathway to getting there. The answer is yes: there are a few different directions you can pursue Note that the below pathways are only a high level overview of options to become a PCNP.

One of the most common pathways is to complete a Bachelor of Science in Nursing program (BSN), become an RN, and then pursue a Master of Science in Nursing degree program. Here’s an overview of your options.

  • Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). The MSN degree is designed to provide the knowledge and clinical experience you need to become a nurse practitioner. There are several ways to earn your MSN—including online MSN programs (which employ distance education tools) and RN-to-MSN programs (which enable you to jump right into your degree, sometimes without a bachelor’s). 
  • Post-Grad Certificate. Online nurse practitioner programs aren’t necessarily required—if you already possess an MSN or doctorate degree, you can pursue a post-graduate certificate instead. Certificate programs prepare you for licensure and certification as a nurse practitioner, and can help you build primary care-specific skills. 
  • BSN to DNP. Much like it sounds, a BSN-to-DNP program enables you to jump from a bachelor’s degree to a DNP (Doctor of Nursing Practice) degree. This pathway is often offered online, making it accessible for working professionals and parents. 

Doctor of Nursing Practice. A Doctor of Nursing Practice is the highest possible degree you can achieve in practice-based nursing. DNP programs may require you to have a master’s in hand for admission, but this option may be worthwhile if you’re looking to advance as a nurse practitioner.

Should I become a primary care nurse practitioner? 

Becoming a nurse practitioner is a personal decision—but it’s one that may pay off in dividends personally and professionally. Nurse practitioners provide primary care and health education to help people stay healthy and prevent or delay the onset of medical conditions. The skills you build as a PCNP can translate to other NP specialties, too. Jobs for nurse practitioners are expected to grow 28% by 2028, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). 

Career Options

As a nurse practitioner in primary care, you have the option to work with a range of patients. Here are two specializations to consider: 

  • Pediatric primary care. Pediatric NPs see patients in their younger years—up to 21 years old. They monitor children’s health and development, with special attention to age-specific concerns. This may be a rewarding career if you are interested in helping children, teens, and young adults as they move toward adulthood.
  • Adult-gerontology primary care. Adult-gerontology NPs help adults manage their health, from the age of 21 onward. These NPs may see more patients with health conditions pertaining to aging. 

Roles and Responsibilities 

A NP’s role straddles the line between nurse and physician. Nurse practitioners can see, diagnose, treat, and prescribe medication for patient health conditions on their own in most states. In this career, you’ll be working closely to communicate with patients and their families, interpreting data, assessing health care conditions, and working alongside a care team to deliver the best possible experience to patients.

Nurse Practitioner Salary 

As a nurse practitioner, you have the potential to earn more than RNs. Nursing salaries vary depending on the state where you practice, your employer, and a host of other factors. But in 2019, the median NP salary was $109,820, according to the BLS.

BLS pay data also reveals the five top-paying states for nurse practitioners in 2019. They are:

Nurse Practitioner Salary
State Salary
California $138,660
Washington $126,920
Hawaii $124,000
New Jersey $123,810
Minnesota $122,850

Primary Care Nurse Practitioner Certifications 

As a PCNP, you can pursue additional specialty nursing certifications to help you strengthen your skills and work more closely with a chosen population. The below certification information was retrieved in August 2020.

Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner Certification (AGPCNP-BC)

Eligibility Requirements: Active RN license, master’s degree or higher in an accredited nurse practitioner program.

Fees: 

  • $295 for American Nurses Association members
  • $340 for American Association of Nurse Practitioners
  • $395 for non-members

Renewal: Certifications must be renewed every 5 years. Fees for renewal are:

  • $275 for American Nurses Association members
  • $295 for American Association of Nurse Practitioners
  • $375 for non-members

Certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner – Primary Care (CPNP-PC)

Eligibility Requirements: Active RN license, master’s degree or higher in an accredited nurse practitioner program.

Fees:

  • Exam cost: $385 – Includes $130 non refundable registration fee.
  • Re-exam cost: $270 – Not refundable. Current PNCB eligibility criteria must be met when re-applying. Candidates can reapply after official PNCB exam results are mailed. A new 90-day testing window is assigned.
  • Extension: $150 – Not refundable.

Renewal: Recertification is required every year.

Primary Care Nurse Practitioner Resources 

There are several resources devoted to helping nurse practitioners grow and succeed. As you look to become a primary care nurse practitioner, consider the following resources and organizations: 

Related Nurse Practitioner Careers

Primary care nurse practitioner isn’t the only role you can pursue. There are numerous nurse practitioner specialties that may interest you. A couple of them are listed below: 

Women Health Nurse Practitioner: A women’s health NP sees women throughout the various stages of their lives—prenatal, postnatal, and menopausal. To become one, you must complete a women’s health nurse practitioner (WHNP) program. You can attend classes on campus but there are online options too.

FAQs

Explore the responses to common questions below:

What is a primary care nurse?

A primary care nurse administers primary care services (like an annual checkup) to the population they work with. This may be young, adult, or elderly patients.  

What does a primary care nurse practitioner do?

A primary care NP has an important opportunity to impact patient lives. According to the AANP, NPs have a vital role in “making high-quality, patient-centered health care available to the broadest possible range of consumers.” They emphasize the preventive measures individuals and groups can take to stay healthy for years to come.

Where does a primary care nurse practitioner work?

A primary care nurse practitioner works in any setting where primary care is provided—hospitals and health systems, physician groups, and private practices. They administer annual checkups and preventive services, and treat general conditions that arise.

What’s the difference between a primary care nurse practitioner and an acute care nurse practitioner?

A primary care NP provides primary care services—they’re often the main practitioner a patient will see. An acute care NP works with patients who have chronic illnesses or other ongoing conditions that requires greater and immediate attention.

Information on this page was retrieved in August 2020.