Primary Care Nurse Practitioner Career Overview

Kristen Hamlin
Updated July 28, 2023
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    Learn more about primary care nurse practitioners, how to become one, and the important role they play in delivering quality healthcare.
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    median earning potential$120,680SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

    Primary Care Nurse Practitioner Career in Brief

    msn required
    certification optional

    Nurse practitioners are vital to primary care in the United States. They offer a blend of nursing and medical services to patients of all ages, such as diagnosing chronic and acute conditions, chronic disease management, health promotion, and wellness services. Depending on the laws governing their state, NPs may practice on their own or under physician supervision.

    NPs hold these key responsibilities:

    Key Responsibilities

    • Conducting patients’ physical exams
    • Ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests
    • Creating patient care plans
    • Prescribing both pharmaceutical and nonpharmaceutical treatments
    • Providing education and counseling to patients
    • Consulting with other healthcare providers

    Career Traits

    • Leadership skills
    • Decision-making
    • Problem-solving
    • Compassionate

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    Where Do Primary Care Nurses Work?

    According to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP), more than 325,000 NPs are licensed in the U.S. with the majority (89%) working in primary care. This includes primary care offices, community health centers, and home health centers.

    Primary Care Offices

    Primary care nurses may work in independent practice, where allowed, and provide direct care to patients. They might also perform 24/7 telephone triage to offer care advice and management, medication guidance, and recommendations for further treatment.

    Community Care Centers

    Typically found in rural or underserved communities, community care centers employ primary care NPs to provide preventive and primary health services to patients (many without health insurance). Primary care nurses also give communities access to health counseling and promotion and collaborate with other providers to support patient health.

    Home Health Centers

    Primary care nurses direct care planning and management for chronic conditions, offer care to patients in their homes, and partner with paramedic and emergency medical services to provide in-home care, with the goal of reducing hospitalizations.

    Primary Care Nursing vs. Acute Care Nursing

    Primary Care Nursing

    • checkProvides ongoing care with a patient, establishing a long-term relationship
    • checkFocuses on health education, promotion, screening, and diagnosing common conditions
    • checkDevelops treatment plans for patients using evidence-based best practices
    • checkPrimarily works in clinics, including family practice, pediatric, internal medicine, and community health centers
    • checkWorks during normal business hours
    • checkCoordinates with acute care providers when a patient’s chronic illness worsens or requires hospitalization

    Acute Care Nursing

    • checkProvides short-term care for patients who need immediate care due to critical illness or injury
    • checkFocuses on treating patients who have urgent needs or are physiologically unstable
    • checkProvides care in emergency or critical situations using evidence-based best practices
    • checkPrimarily works in hospital settings, including the emergency department, intensive care units, medical-surgical units, and subspeciality units
    • checkWorks varied hours, including overnight and weekend shifts
    • checkCoordinates with primary care providers for postacute treatment

    How to Become a Primary Care Nurse Practitioner

    Complete a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) program.

    If you do not have any previous nursing experience, a BSN program takes about 3-4 years to complete. However, experienced registered nurses (RNs) do not need to earn a BSN before pursuing a master’s degree if they enroll in an RN-to-MSN degree program.

    Pass the NCLEX-RN to receive RN licensure.

    An RN license is required to practice nursing, and all prospective RNs must pass the National Council Licensure Exam for RNs (NCLEX-RN). Take the nurse licensing test after earning your associate degree or BSN and seeking approval from your state’s nursing board.

    Complete a graduate degree in nursing.

    You can earn either a master of science in nursing (MSN) or a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) to practice as an NP. If you have an RN license with an associate degree, you can complete an RN-to-MSN program to meet the educational requirements.

    Pass the National NP Certification Board Exam and receive NP licensure.

    Administered by the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board, the NP certification exam is 150 questions related to clinical competency and knowledge across the life span.

    Learn more about how to become a primary care nurse practitioner.

    Patient Care Focuses for Primary Care Nurse Practitioners

    The AANP reports that 89% of NPs have a primary care focus. Some of the more common primary care focuses are outlined below.

    • Adult Nurse Practitioner (ANP-BC)

      ANPs work primarily with adults ranging from late adolescence to seniors. This broad age range means that most ANPs are generalists, although some work with specific age groups.

    • Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP-BC)

      FNPs work with patients throughout their entire lifespan, from infants through seniors. Also considered generalists, they typically work in primary care settings, urgent care, or internal medicine. AANP reports that 67% of NPs are FNPs.

    • Gerontological Nurse Practitioner (GNP-BC)

      GNPs work exclusively with seniors, providing primary care services related to aging. The American Nurses Credentialing Center no longer offers the GNP certification (although existing credentials can be renewed). NPs wishing to work with this population can earn the Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner (AGPCNP-BC) credential instead.

    • Pediatric Primary Care Nurse Practitioner (PPCNP-BC)

      Pediatric primary care nurse practitioners work with children from birth through adolescence. They focus on the physical and psychological needs of children, including disease prevention and management, wellness, and health promotion.

    • Womens Healthcare Nurse Practitioner (WHNP-BC)

      WHNPs provide comprehensive womens wellness, including reproductive, pre and postnatal, and gynecological care to women of all ages.

    How Much Do Primary Care Nurse Practitioners Make?

    According to the AANP’s 2019 compensation overview, the median base salary for a full-time nurse practitioner is $110,000. However, NPs also report earning annual bonuses for performance factors like quality of care and outcomes, which can increase annual earnings to $115,000. Learn more about primary care NP salaries.

    Nurse practitioners are in high demand. As the U.S. population ages and the need for health services increases, NPs are increasingly being called on to provide preventive and primary care services. The increasing number of community health centers nationwide also contributes to demand; HealthAffairs notes that community health centers saw a 31% increase in the number of patients seen from 2013-2018.

    The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts a 46% job growth for NPs between 2021 and 2031. Demand for healthcare services, an increasing acceptance of NPs for primary care services, and changing state laws that increase NPs’ scope of practice are all expected to contribute to rapid growth in jobs.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    How do I become a primary care nurse practitioner?

    NPs need an RN license, a graduate degree in nursing, and an advanced practice license, earned by passing a national certification exam. The path to earning your master’s depends on whether you already have a BSN. If you do, you can enter an MSN program directly. Otherwise, an RN-to-MSN program will prepare you for advanced practice. Some organizations have supported making the DNP the required degree for all entry-level NPs; however, currently, there is no mandate.

    How much do primary care nurse practitioners make?

    Primary care nurses earn a median annual income of about $120,000, accordning to the BLS, including base salary plus bonuses or incentives. Employers determine bonus amounts, which may be based on quality, care outcomes, patient satisfaction, patient encounters, or other criteria.

    What is the role of a primary nurse practitioner?

    A primary care nurse practitioner provides general healthcare services to patients. They collaborate with other providers and develop care plans, assess and diagnose patient conditions, provide preventive care and wellness services, and monitor and treat chronic conditions. For some patients, especially those at community health centers, NPs are their primary providers.

    What is the difference between primary and secondary healthcare?

    Primary care focuses on general health and wellness. Patients see a primary care provider for annual checkups and wellness visits, chronic disease management, preventive care like vaccines, and minor acute illnesses. Secondary care is more specialized and involves intensive health monitoring and treatments. Many specialists provide secondary care, focusing on specific conditions or body systems.

    Resources for Primary Care Nurse

    • Lippincott Nursing Center

      NursingCenter provides access to a range of resources for all nurses, including peer-reviewed journals, books, articles, and podcasts. It also offers an array of clinical and continuing education resources. Membership is free to all nurses and includes access to NursingJobsPlus, a comprehensive job board.
    • American Association of Nurse Practitioners

      The largest professional organization for NPs, AANP has more than 118,000 individual and organizational members. They provide advocacy, continuing education opportunities, student resources, a job board, and research opportunities. Membership is open to NPs at all career levels.
    • National Black Nurse Practitioner Association

      NBNPA is a nonprofit organization of advanced practice nurses, most of whom live and work in the Houston, Texas area. They are committed to improving health and access to healthcare in underserved communities and the advancement of advanced practice nurses. Membership includes access to a career center, scholarships, education and networking events, and volunteer opportunities.
    • National Indian Nurse Practitioners Association of America

      NINPAA is committed to professional excellence among Indian American nurse practitioners in all specialties. The organization provides education and professional development opportunities to members at both the state and national levels to support high-quality primary care. Members have access to a job board, an annual conference, and a newsletter.

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