The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the critical role that doctors and nurses play in promoting wellness and preventing disease. Unfortunately, the pandemic also exposed significant shortcomings in the American health care system, including a shortage of qualified caregivers that has the potential to impact patient care for some time. Nurses are particularly difficult to find, with the total pool of credentialed nursing professionals falling well short of the population’s needs.
According to medical information publication Healthline, the nursing shortage began as far back as 2012, and is expected to last at least until 2030.
While such shortages are worrisome, there are some silver linings. For one, nurses have ample opportunities to boost their careers, seeking advanced practice roles in direct patient diagnosis, treatment, and care. Nurses who wish to fill the gaps in our health care system by delivering comprehensive care can choose to further their education through a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) program, then seek nurse practitioner certification.
Particularly notable is the role of acute care nurse practitioner. Nurses in these roles typically work in hospital emergency rooms or specialized care settings, where they diagnose and treat patients who have sudden or extreme illnesses and injuries. Those who are curious about this role will naturally wish to learn more about the scope of practice, day-to-day responsibilities, acute care nurse practitioner salary, and more.
What Is an Acute Care Nurse Practitioner?
Before diving into salary and career outlook, it’s helpful to distinguish what an acute care nurse practitioner is, compared to other types of nursing.
Defining the Acute Care Nurse Practitioner
A nurse practitioner is a type of advanced practice registered nurse, or APRN. These caregivers begin their careers as registered nurses, or RNs, which requires them to obtain either a two-year or four-year degree, then sit for a licensure exam.
Once becoming licensed as an RN, and obtaining some hands-on patient care experience, these nurses continue their education with more advanced training, often obtaining either an MSN or a DNP. Through cultivating a more robust set of clinical skills and knowledge, these nurses can sit for their certification as nurse practitioners, or NPs.
A nurse practitioner is able to work more autonomously than an RN, not only supporting physicians but also playing an active and direct role in diagnosing patients, conducting tests, and developing and implementing treatment plans. Nurse practitioners may even serve in primary care roles. (The specific level of practice autonomy nurse practitioners enjoy can vary from state to state.)
Nurse practitioners typically undergo specialized training, allowing them to earn particular certifications. For example, some nurse practitioners are certified in women’s health. Others may choose to be certified in psychiatric mental health care. While the generic designation for acute care was retired in 2014, nurse practitioners can currently seek certification in adult-gerontology acute care or in pediatric acute care.
The basic role of the acute care nurse practitioner is to examine, diagnose, and treat patients experiencing serious illnesses or injuries. These nurses may also assess patient conditions, educate family members and loved ones, and prescribe medications.
Acute Care Nurse Practitioners vs. Other NP Roles
The distinguishing feature of acute care practice is that it typically involves diagnosing and treating acute conditions, including illnesses and injuries. In other words, acute care nurse practitioners are usually not involved in performing primary care roles, in overall wellness promotion, or in managing the symptoms of a chronic or ongoing condition.
One way to think about it: Through regular checkups with a primary care doctor or NP, patients can minimize the likelihood of problems occurring. If a serious or sudden problem occurs, however, acute care nurse practitioners can help troubleshoot and resolve it.
Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Work Environment
Given their role in addressing acute illnesses and injuries, these nurse practitioners can be found in a few different work environments. These include hospitals and primary care practices and may specifically include operating rooms, emergency rooms, and specialized care facilities. Acute care nurse practitioners can also be found in ambulatory clinics and in intensive care units.
What Does an Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Do?
What does an acute care nurse practitioner do on a day-to-day basis? Specific duties and responsibilities can vary by position. Duties may also differ between private practice and public hospital settings. Typically, acute care nurse practitioners can expect to perform the following.
Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Duties and Responsibilities
- Diagnosing patients. Acute care nurses play a central role in diagnosing patients in their area of specialty (for instance, pediatric medicine or adult-gerontology care). To determine the correct diagnosis, acute care nurse practitioners may perform physical examinations and conduct different types of diagnostic testing, such as imaging or blood work. In a hospital, acute care nurse practitioners may collaborate with doctors or other nurses to arrive at diagnoses.
- Reviewing patient medical histories. By familiarizing themselves with patient files, and by asking patients about their medical histories, acute care nurse practitioners can ensure those in their care receive the most efficient, appropriate, and safe treatment options.
- Performing screenings. Depending on patient symptoms and diagnoses, nurse practitioners may also conduct screenings for cancer and other types of disease. This may be done either to eliminate these conditions from the list of possible diagnoses, or to begin medical intervention as promptly as possible.
- Implementing treatment. Working either independently or in collaboration with other caregivers, acute care nurse practitioners may also design and implement treatment plans. This may mean prescribing medication, recommending physical therapy, or referring the patient to an appropriate specialist.
- Educating patients and families. It often falls to the nurse practitioner to explain the diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment plan to the patient, as well as to any of the patient’s family members who are present.
Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Skills
To successfully fulfill each of the commitments specified above, acute care nurse practitioners must have a number of core competencies and basic skills. Some of the essential skills of the acute care nurse practitioner include:
- Active listening skills. To succeed in acute care nursing, it’s imperative to listen closely to patient complaints and medical histories, facilitating a thorough and careful diagnosis.
- Analytic skills. Similarly, acute care nurses must be skilled in synthesizing relevant information to arrive at a reasonable diagnosis and treatment plan.
- Critical thinking. Acute care nurse practitioners must be ready to think on their feet, making quick and well-reasoned decisions about patient care.
- Emotional stability. Acute care nurse practitioners often work in high-stress environments, such as emergency rooms and critical care units. The ability to remain level headed is key.
- Communication skills. Succeeding in this role requires the ability to clearly communicate with patients and their family members, plus other members of the clinical care team.
How to Become an Acute Care Nurse Practitioner
To become an acute care nurse practitioner, and to cultivate the skills to successfully treat patients, it is crucial to seek the right formal education and credentialing. While the specific trajectory can vary slightly from state to state, here is a general overview of how to become an acute care nurse practitioner.
Become a Registered Nurse
A nurse practitioner is what’s known as an advanced practice nurse. In other words, it’s someone who begins their career as an RN but obtains additional education and higher-level certification.
As such, the place to begin is with RN licensure. Becoming an RN means obtaining either a two-year Associate Degree in Nursing or a four-year Bachelor of Science in Nursing. From there, the nursing student may sit for the NCLEX-RN exam, a nationally-standardized test that assesses basic knowledge of patient care and clinical practice.
Completion of this exam qualifies the nurse to begin practicing as an RN. Some nurses will work for a few years, gaining hands-on clinical experience before seeking to advance their career. Others will immediately return to school, enrolling in an MSN program or even a BSN to DNP program. Many nurses work while completing an advanced degree program online.
Get Advanced Training
Aspiring acute care nurse practitioners need to seek additional education. This means, at minimum, obtaining an MSN. Those who desire more advanced positions of nurse leadership, or who think they may wish to become nurse educators one day, may go on to earn a DNP.
More specifically, nurses must ensure at least part of their coursework concentrates on acute care, allowing them to hone the skills to work in an emergency room or critical care unit.
From there, nurses sit for an examination to become certified as acute care nurse practitioners. These examinations are administered by state-level nursing boards, and the specifics can vary from one state to the next.
How Long Does It Take?
One of the most common questions about becoming an acute care nurse practitioner is “How long does it take?” The answer can vary from person to person, depending on their specific path, the type of advanced degree program they pursue, and the amount of time they spend gaining hands-on clinical experience. For individuals who choose to earn an MSN, the entire process will likely take six years; for those who choose the DNP, it can take a year or two longer.
What About Scope of Authority?
Nurse practitioners often talk about a concept called scope of authority, or scope of practice. Basically, this has to do with the level of independence and autonomy with which nurse practitioners can practice, or the level at which they require supervision from a physician.
Acute care nurse practitioners have the same scope of practice as any other nurse practitioner subspecialty. That is, 23 states grant acute care nurse practitioners full practice authority. This means they do not have to work under the supervision of a doctor. In the other states, nurse practitioners must be overseen by a physician.
Additionally, all 50 states currently allow nurse practitioners to prescribe medications, while 49 states allow nurses to prescribe controlled substances. (Controlled substances are narcotics that the U.S. government has identified as being especially addictive or dangerous, despite whatever therapeutic benefits they offer. These medications can be useful, but they must be prescribed sparingly.)
A final note regarding scope of practice is that nurses who desire the fullest sense of autonomy should consider an advanced degree, such as the DNP. Higher levels of education and credentialing open the doors to independent, authoritative positions in the health care world.
Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Salary and Career Outlook
Nurses who are curious about advanced practice, or about working in an acute care setting, understandably have questions about the acute care nurse practitioner salary range, as well as the overall job outlook.
According to data obtained from the compensation website Payscale, the median annual acute care nurse practitioner salary as of August 2022 was approximately $106,000.
A number of factors can affect an acute care nurse practitioner’s pay range, including:
- Years of experience. Those who have additional years of hands-on clinical experience tend to command higher salaries.
- Education. Advanced degrees typically yield higher salary ranges. An NP with a DNP, for example, will often earn more than an NP with an MSN.
- Job location. Salary ranges can also vary by geographic location, based on the local cost of living.
The job market for advanced practice registered nurses, including acute care nurse practitioners, looks strong, and given the ongoing nursing shortage, it’s likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.
As America’s population ages, the need to care for chronically ill patients continues to increase. Because many nurses leave the workforce due to COVID-19 burnout and other reasons, there simply aren’t enough of them to keep pace with demand. As a result, the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects job opportunities for RNs will grow at a pace of 9% annually, faster than the average for all professions. The job growth rate for advanced practice nurses, including nurse practitioners, is an incredible 45%.
Why Become an Acute Care Nurse Practitioner?
For nurses who think on their feet, thrive in fast-paced work environments, and are passionate about providing direct patient care, a career as an acute care nurse practitioner can be highly rewarding. Here are several specific benefits to choosing this field.
- Fill a need. Again, the nursing shortage has left some major holes in the health care system, and if unfilled, those holes could leave some patients with substandard care. Those who choose to work in an advanced practice nursing role can play a critical role in supporting a robust health care industry.
- Choose a specialty. Nurse practitioners can select a clinical specialty and pursue it. Acute care, whether for adults or pediatrics, is just one option.
- Practice autonomy. NPs have an opportunity to enjoy autonomy that also affords them flexibility in their personal work schedules.
- Provide direct care. For nurses who prefer to meet new patients daily, diagnose ailments, and perform direct intervention, working in a fast-paced acute care setting fits the bill.
- Job outlook and salary. The high job growth rate makes for an enticing career path, and the acute care nurse practitioner salary is attractive.
These are just a few of the reasons to consider a role in acute care advanced practice nursing.
Make a Positive Impact as an Acute Care Nurse Practitioner
When patients struggle with acute injury or illness, they need compassionate care from a skilled, confident nursing professional. To become that caregiver, consider a role as an acute care nurse practitioner.
It all begins with a robust education. The online Doctor of Nursing Practice program from Hawai’i Pacific University offers the opportunity to hone all the skills to become certified in acute care and ultimately build a successful career. Most importantly, the program offers the foundational competencies to make a positive impact on patients.
Discover more about the online DNP program and how it can empower you to change the face of health care.
How Long Are BSN to DNP Programs?
Clinical Decision-Making in Nursing Practice
Can Nurse Practitioners Prescribe? 5 Scope of Practice Answers
American Association of Critical Care Nurses, Clinical Nurse Specialists and the National Provider Identifier
American Association of Nurse Practitioners, Are You Considering a Career as an Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner?
American Association of Nurse Practitioners, Issues at a Glance: Full Practice Authority
American Association of Nurse Practitioners, Standards of Practice for Nurse Practitioners
Career Explorer, What Does an Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Do?
General Health Resources, Three Great Reasons to Pursue a Career as an Acute Care Registered Nurse
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Incredible Health, How to Become an Acute Care Nurse Practitioner
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