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How to Become a Primary Care Nurse Practitioner

Keith Carlson, BSN, RN, NC-BC
Updated August 5, 2022
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Primary care nurse practitioners provide crucial preventive and chronic care to patients. Learn more about this popular nursing career path.
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Primary care nurse practitioners make important contributions to the health of our society. Depending on their area of certification, they provide preventive and chronic care to patients of all ages. When patients are under the care of an expert nurse practitioner (NP), they receive comprehensive attention to their chronic health issues, acute illnesses, and overall health maintenance.By becoming a primary care nurse practitioner, you will have the satisfaction of joining the more than 350,000 nurse practitioners currently providing high-quality care to millions of Americans.

In this guide, you will learn what a primary care nurse practitioner is, and how to become a primary care nurse practitioner.

Discover what to expect when working as a primary care NP, and what sort of education and certification becoming a primary care nurse practitioner requires.

What Is a Primary Care Nurse Practitioner?

Becoming a primary care nurse practitioner takes an average of 6-8 years, and requires either a master’s of science in nursing (MSN) or doctoral degree (DNP).

Primary care NPs can work as family nurse practitioners (FNPs) or as adult-gerontology primary care nurse practitioners (A-GNPs) based on their chosen path of education and certification. FNPs see patients from newborns to the very elderly, while A-GNPs focus only on adolescents through the elderly.

Both A-GNPs and FNPs can diagnose and help patients manage chronic and acute conditions. Primary care NPs promote patients’ health by looking after important maintenance concerns like vaccinations, bloodwork, colonoscopies, physical exams, and other wellness-related services.

Steps to Becoming a Primary Care Nurse Practitioner

There is necessary education and examination to become a primary care nurse practitioner, including earning a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) and becoming a licensed RN by passing the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN).

Those wishing to become primary care NPs must then gain clinical experience, earn a graduate degree, and pass the national certification exam in order to become certified. Some licensure requirements may vary by state.

  1. 1

    Earn an ADN or BSN degree from an accredited program

    The first step on the path to becoming a primary care nurse practitioner is earning a BSN. Traditional BSN programs require students to fulfill general education courses (e.g.: algebra, English, psychology) and nursing prerequisites (e.g.: anatomy and physiology, microbiology, chemistry).

    In the nursing program itself, students will experience both classroom learning and clinical training in various settings. A BSN often takes four years to earn unless the student has previously completed general education or science courses that meet the BSN program standards.

    A “bridge program” (RN-to-BSN) is for nurses with an associate of science in nursing who would like to advance their education and career. Such programs can take 9-24 months to complete. Accelerated BSN programs are for people with a previous bachelor’s degree in a non-nursing field. These programs are around 11-18 months long.

  2. 2

    Pass the NCLEX to Receive RN Licensure

    Every graduating nursing student must pass theNCLEX in order to legally practice as a registered nurse. The National Council of State Boards of Nursing (NCSBN) administers the exam. Most recent graduates take the test within one or two months of graduation.

  3. 3

    Gain Clinical Nursing Experience

    Many advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) graduate programs require 1-2 years of nursing experience. Even if a particular program does not require it, a nurse aiming for admission to a competitive NP program can increase their chances by having real-world nursing experience.

  4. 4

    Earn Your Graduate Degree from an NP Program

    Becoming a primary care nurse practitioner requires an MSN or DNP. FNP programs take around 2-3 years to complete, depending on whether the student attends full- or part-time.

  5. 5

    Pass Your National Nurse Practitioner Board Certification

    Every graduate of an FNP or DNP program must pass the national certification exam in order to practice as an NP. The American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board (AANPCB) and the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) both offer certification exams for FNP and A-GNP graduates. The AANPCB FNP & A-GNP Certification Handbook outlines the entire process, including eligibility requirements.

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Primary Care Nurse Practitioner Education

Becoming a primary care nurse practitioner involves pursuing a master’s of science or doctoral degree program. These programs provide training and education for a role with great responsibility.

Nurses can begin by earning the minimum of a BSN and MSN from an accredited university or college. Any further education or specialty certification can come later in the nurse’s career.

Primary Care Nurse Practitioner Licensure and Certification

Primary care nurse practitioners must be licensed as RNs and certified as NPs to practice in the state or territory where they work.

The mandatory 150-question FNP competency-based certification exam tests the applicant’s knowledge regarding lifespan patient care.

One of two certifying bodies grants certification: the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) or the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board (AANPCB). Successfully completing the exam grants the nurse the FNP-C designation. The ANCC and the AANPCB also administer the 175-question A-GNP certification exam. Successfully completing the exam grants the nurse the AGPCNP-BC designation.

Eligibility criteria for either exam include:

  • check-circleCurrent, active RN license
  • check-circleSubmission of complete transcripts
  • check-circleValidation of Education Form signed by faculty
  • check-circleMaster’s, post-graduate certificate, or DNP from an accredited institution
  • check-circleSuccessful completion of courses in advanced physiology/pathophysiology, advanced health assessment, and advanced pharmacology, population specialization
  • check-circleDocumented education on health promotion and/or maintenance
  • check-circleDocumented education on differential diagnosis and disease management, including the prescription of pharmacologic and non-pharmacologic interventions
  • check-circleDocumented proof of clinical hours covering each course subject

Nurse practitioners must renew NP certification every five years. Renewal requirements include 1,000 clinical hours and 100 hours of continuing education including 25 hours of pharmacology.

Working as a Primary Care Nurse Practitioner

Following certification as a primary care nurse practitioner, NPs can go on the job hunt. Finding an appropriate position requires engaging in common career-building strategies, including professional networking and job-hunting using online job boards.

An updated resume or CV, professional references, and a cover letter customized for each potential position are also key.

Primary care nurse practitioners may work in private practice, public and private clinics, correctional health, university or college health centers, occupational health, urgent care, family planning centers, and other settings.

Job responsibilities may vary, but will likely involve delegating tasks to RNs and aides, physical assessments, diagnosis and treatment of chronic and acute conditions, and timely referral to specialists providers.

The AANP reports that adult-gerontology primary care NPs earn an average annual base salary of $107,000, with an average hourly rate of $53.00. FNPs earn an average annual base salary of $107,000, with an average hourly rate of $57.00.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports the 2021 median annual salary for nurse practitioners as $123,780 and the mean hourly wage as nearly $60. The BLS currently projects job growth of 52% (much faster than average) for all nurse practitioners.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Primary Care Nurse Practitioner

question-mark-circleHow many years does it take to become a primary care nurse practitioner?

With no other college degrees, becoming a primary care nurse practitioner can take four years to earn a BSN, and an additional 2-3 years to become a master’s-prepared NP. A DNP degree would, of course, add several more years to the process.

With a previous non-nursing degree, a student could earn their BSN through an accelerated BSN program in 18-24 months before beginning their MSN.

question-mark-circleWhat are the most popular types of primary care nurse practitioners?

According to the AANP, the most popular type of primary care nurse practitioner is the family nurse practitioner, with 65.4% of all APRNS being FNPs. The next most popular is adult-gerontology primary care at 7.8%. Adult NP falls in second place at 12.6%, but the adult NP certification has been replaced by the adult-gerontology certification.

question-mark-circleCan you become a primary care nurse practitioner with an ADN?

Yes, you would either pursue an RN-to-MSN bridge program, or first earn a BSN and then seek an MSN in order to become a primary care NP.

question-mark-circleWhere do primary care nurse practitioners work?

Primary care nurse practitioners serve patients in every primary care setting, including but not limited to NP-owned practices, clinics, health maintenance organizations (HMOs), private physician offices, nursing homes, college and university health centers, municipal or state public health departments, and homeless shelters.

Page Last Reviewed: July 24, 2022

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