More Nurse Practitioners (NPs) than ever before are heeding the call to serve as hands-on healthcare providers. According to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP), a record number of more than 335,000 NPs are currently licensed to practice in the US. But who are these nurses and what exactly they do?
In simple terms, NPs are Registered Nurses (RNs) with specialized education at the graduate level. These are clinicians who blend expertise in diagnosing and treating conditions, health management, and emphasizing disease prevention.
What do NPs do?
The scope of practice for NPs is defined in each state’s regulations and laws. This scope can vary based on several factors, including the training and education of the nurse, as well as the needs of the employer and state in which they practice.
Online BSN to NP programs prepare NPs to carry out these responsibilities, including tasks such as assessment, diagnosis, and treatment. Nurses who pursue a course at a reputable institution, such as the University of Indianapolis, will develop clinical reasoning skills that enable them to easily identify normal and abnormal findings; essential for providing quality care. The course at the University of Indianapolis is held part-time, online, to accommodate working nurses. It can be completed in just eight semesters and can be accompanied by an on-campus clinical intensive, for nurses also looking to build on their practical experience.
NPs are tasked with the responsibility of gathering information about a patient during the assessment process. Depending on the kind of assessment they are carrying out, they will ask questions to determine the medical history of the patient and the length of time since the patient experienced a symptom or ailment.
NPs must conduct assessments as they are the basis of determining a patient’s emotional, physical, and mental state. When nurses have the right questions and assessment strategies, they can quickly gauge a patient’s condition and make the proper treatment recommendations.
Assessments by NPs are tailored according to the condition of a patient and the reason for evaluation. For example, assessment can encompass a physical examination that will gauge a patient’s response to a simple stimulus. In other instances, the NP might pose questions to gauge a patient’s mental status.
Diagnostic tests are approaches utilized in clinical practice to identify a patient’s disease with high accuracy and thus provide early and proper treatment. Typically, NPs order diagnostic tests such as X-rays, blood work, ultrasounds, magnetic resonance imaging, or computed tomography.
However, some concerns may necessitate more complicated diagnostic tests. For example, a pregnant woman who is an at-risk patient will require prenatal tests that will continuously track fetal development.
NPs usually order tests for further examination if they cannot perform a specific diagnostic examination. In such cases, a lab will conduct blood or other body fluids tests and send the results to the NP for analysis and diagnoses. Likewise, NPs may send a patient for an MRI or X-ray to evaluate an internal condition that could not be diagnosed with an external assessment.
Prescribing medication and treatment
In the US, NPs can prescribe medication, including controlled substances, in all states. They prescribe medication after assessment to ease pain, alleviate symptoms, improve recovery, and treat infections.
An NP can also develop treatment plans for patients and assist them in implementing these plans. For example, an NP can outline a road to recovery to assist a patient in managing chronic diseases. Treatment can sometimes include medication or physical or mental therapy to achieve holistic patient recovery.
If a patient needs a specialized service or complicated treatment plan that an NP cannot provide, they can make referrals to medical specialists. For example, an NP may refer a patient to a urologist for recommendations on issues related to the prostate, kidney, or male reproductive organs.
Conditions NPs can treat or help manage
As NPs are more widely available, more people choose them as their primary care providers. This is because NPs are more focused on wellness and illness prevention, something that most patients see the benefits of.
In addition, NPs possess the expertise to manage and assist patients in coping with various health conditions, including the following.
Acute back pain
Back pain is one of the most common conditions in the US. This condition can be caused by many factors that can present simultaneously, resulting in pain. These factors can include inflammatory conditions, structural problems with the spine, and other medical conditions.
NPs use different tools to diagnose the possible cause of a patient’s back pain. They will ask questions about family history to determine if the underlying condition results from an injury or another medical condition. The NP may also perform a physical exam by looking at the patient’s posture and spine to identify changes in the body’s structure, testing the patient’s reflexes, sensation, and muscle strength, as well as imaging and blood tests.
Treatment often involves pain management through medications, physical therapy, ergonomic adjustments, and lifestyle recommendations. If these treatments fail to relieve the back pain, a nurse may refer patients for surgery depending on their medical history and underlying cause of pain.
Urinary tract infection
Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs) are common infections that occur when bacteria, in most cases from the rectum or skin, get into the urethra and infect the urinary tract. These infections can affect various parts of the urinary tract, but the most common type is cystitis or a bladder infection.
NP care of a patient with a UTI focuses on treating the underlying infection and preventing its recurrence. In most cases, the NP will obtain a history of the symptoms and signs related to the UTI from the patient suspected to have the infection. Based on the data from the assessment, the diagnosis may include acute pain or deficient knowledge on the patient’s side.
Subsequently, the NP will focus on goals for the patient, such as relief of discomfort and pain, increased knowledge of treatment modalities and preventive measures, and reducing the risk of complications. They will go on to recommend treatment, including a course of antibiotics, increased fluid intake, and recommendations for proper hygiene to prevent future infections.
Acute chest infection
Chest infections can arise from bacterial or viral infections affecting the lungs and airways. NPs conduct a thorough physical examination, assessing the patient’s respiratory system and listening to the lungs. Diagnostic tests such as chest X-rays and sputum analysis might be conducted to confirm the diagnosis. Treatment typically includes antibiotics for bacterial infections, antivirals for viral infections, symptomatic relief, and recommendations for rest and hydration.
Depression and anxiety
Depression and anxiety are types of mood disorders. Among other things, depression can cause feelings of hopelessness, sadness, and fatigue. On the other hand, anxiety causes feelings of worry, nervousness, or dread. Although these two conditions differ, a patient may experience them simultaneously.
The scope of practice of NPs informs their role in supporting patients’ mental health. As, in many cases, they are the first healthcare providers to see patients suffering from medical conditions, NPs are trained to diagnose and treat non-complex mental health conditions and engage in appropriate referrals for unclear diagnoses.
Depending on the scope of practice in the state, NPs can prescribe medications for mental health conditions. Generally, they can prescribe anxiety medications, antidepressants, and other medications to treat conditions such as ADHD.
Diabetes mellitus is a chronic metabolic disorder characterized by high blood sugar levels, often due to insulin resistance or inadequate insulin production. NPs conduct blood glucose tests, assess symptoms, and review the patient’s medical history to determine if a patient has diabetes. If the tests indicate that the patient has the disease, the NP will recommend treatments such as dietary planning, medication management (insulin or oral hypoglycemics), regular monitoring, and diabetes education on self-management and blood sugar control.
Conjunctivitis, commonly known as pink eye, can be caused by bacterial or viral infections, allergic reactions, or irritants like smoke and pollutants. NPs conduct an ocular examination, looking for characteristic symptoms like redness, itching, and discharge. Depending on the type of infection, they may prescribe antibiotics for bacterial conjunctivitis or antihistamines for allergic conjunctivitis. They also educate patients on proper eye hygiene and self-care practices.
Burns, wounds, and scalds
Burns, wounds, and scalds can result from heat, chemicals, electricity, or other trauma. When a patient sees an NP for any of these conditions, the NP will evaluate the extent and severity of the injury, assessing the affected area’s appearance and looking for signs of infection. Subsequently, they might use wound cleaning, dressings, pain management, and guidance on wound care to promote healing and prevent complications.
Menstrual disorders encompass a wide range of conditions affecting the menstrual cycle, such as irregular periods, heavy bleeding (menorrhagia), or absent menstruation (amenorrhea). NPs conduct a thorough gynecological examination and gather details about the patient’s menstrual history. They may utilize diagnostic tests like hormonal assays or imaging. If the condition is diagnosed, they may recommend hormonal therapy and lifestyle modifications. In addition, the NP will educate the patient on menstrual health and hygiene.
Vomiting can be a symptom of various conditions, including gastrointestinal infections, food poisoning, pregnancy-related nausea (morning sickness), or motion sickness. An NP is a suitable medical professional to investigate an ongoing case of recurring vomiting. First, an NP will assess the patient for dehydration. Then, depending on the symptoms and results of the physical exam, they will carry out urine, blood, and pregnancy tests if appropriate. They may sometimes suggest a CT scan or endoscopy if it is difficult to find a cause for the recurrent vomiting.
Treatment for vomiting will depend on the underlying condition. Some of the causes might require specific treatment, depending on their severity. The most common treatments an NP will recommend includes antiemetic medicines, dietary changes, or surgery if a patient suffers from bowel obstruction or appendicitis.
Asthma is a chronic respiratory condition characterized by inflammation and narrowing of the airways, often triggered by allergens, respiratory infections, exercise, or environmental factors. NPs conduct respiratory assessments, including lung function tests and a detailed history of symptoms and triggers. Treatment involves creating an asthma action plan, prescribing bronchodilators and anti-inflammatory medications, and educating the patient on proper inhaler use and environmental control measures.
Respiratory diseases encompass various conditions affecting the respiratory system, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), bronchitis, or interstitial lung disease. The role of NPs in rehabilitating respiratory health is broad. They conduct thorough respiratory assessments, including lung function tests, chest X-rays, and taking a thorough patient history. Treatment involves medication to manage symptoms, inhalation therapy, oxygen therapy, lifestyle modifications (smoking cessation or improved exercise), and patient education on disease management.
Eczema, or atopic dermatitis, is a chronic skin condition characterized by inflammation, redness, itching, and dryness, often influenced by genetics and environmental factors. An NP will discuss the patient’s symptoms and review their medical history to diagnose this condition. They will conduct tests to identify allergies and rule out other skin conditions. Typically, eczema treatment will start with regular moisturizing and other self-care habits. If these are ineffective, the NP might suggest medicated creams that help repair skin and control itching.
Coronary heart diseases
Coronary heart diseases involve the narrowing or blockage of the coronary arteries, typically due to atherosclerosis, leading to reduced blood flow to the heart. NPs diagnose this disease through testing and a physical exam. During the exam, they listen to the patient’s heart with a stethoscope, measure their blood pressure, ask about the patient’s medical history, and evaluate symptoms. They may carry out blood tests, cardiac catheterization, a coronary calcium scan, a CTY coronary angiogram, an echo, or an ECG. They will recommend treatments such as modifications (diet and exercise), medication (aspirin or statins), and close monitoring to manage and prevent complications.
Swollen glands, or lymphadenopathy, can result from infections, immune disorders, malignancies, or localized inflammation. NPs conduct a comprehensive physical examination, focusing on the location and characteristics of the swollen glands. Additional diagnostic tests, such as blood work or imaging, may be ordered. Treatment depends on the underlying cause and may involve antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medications, or further investigation for malignancies.
Shaping the future of healthcare
Today, NPs have proven their effectiveness in delivering low-cost health services while maintaining high-quality health standards. Patients, recognizing the value of good medical services, flock to NPs for various health needs, such as diagnosing and treating diseases and syndromes. Therefore, these professionals will continue to play an active role in the US healthcare system, especially when quality yet affordable care is increasingly needed.