What Does a Nurse Practitioner Do?
Although nurse practitioners have been providing high-quality patient care for more than half a century and are found in nearly every health care setting, many patients still question the role they play in patient care. What experience do they have? Can they prescribe medicine?
The answer is nurse practitioners can diagnose and treat injuries and illnesses of various types, order and interpret diagnostic tests and prescribe medications. However, they often take a different approach to care than some patients might expect.
Nurse practitioners tend to look holistically at the patient, giving equal attention to emotional needs and physical problems. Nurses are natural caregivers. Their education comes from that perspective. For me, being a nurse practitioner at Penn State Health St. Joseph — Spring Ridge means I get the best of both worlds.
After working as a nurse for nearly 20 years, first in the emergency department and then in outpatient oncology, I decided the best way for me to achieve the autonomy I wanted and learn more about the art of practicing medicine was to become a nurse practitioner. Throughout my career, I have had the pleasure of working with some very skilled physicians who mentored me and allowed me to glean a lot of knowledge from them. I also spent many years developing the experience and critical care thinking skills necessary to succeed as a nurse practitioner.
In general, post-secondary education for nurse practitioners can take about six to eight years. Although nurse practitioners take many of the same courses as physicians, such as advanced chemistry, biology and microbiology, they technically don’t complete a residency program. They do log about 670 clinical hours on average before they are licensed, and they must be board-certified. The two main accrediting organizations that credential nurse practitioners require them to complete 150 hours of continuing education every five years. If they fail to meet that requirement, they must retake the board exam.
Currently, 21 states allow nurse practitioners to practice independently. However, in Pennsylvania, nurse practitioners must have a collaborative physician. Although the physician does not oversee the nurse practitioner, review medical records, oversee care or cosign prescriptions — nurse practitioners have full independence in that regard — the physician is there if backup support is needed.
Though predominantly trained for primary care, many nurse practitioners choose to specialize in areas such as pediatrics, oncology, surgery, rheumatology and neurology. When I graduated 10 years ago, I chose to be a family nurse practitioner and haven’t looked back. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I feel like my patients are an extension of my family. While initially they might not understand exactly what I do, by the end of their first visit they tell me how pleased they were with my thoroughness and professionalism, as well as the quality of their visit. When you establish that rapport, you develop a level of trust that opens the door to communication.
That communication has proven vital, especially now in the midst of a pandemic. It is imperative that every patient understands they need to get regular checkups and screenings and don’t neglect their health due to a fear of COVID-19. At Penn State Health St. Joseph, thanks to numerous enhanced safety measures and accommodations we’ve implemented, patients can take comfort in knowing we will keep them safe whenever they need us.
Dianne Mulreaney is a family nurse practitioner at Penn State Health Medical Group — Spring Ridge.