The Path from FNP to DNP

How will America's health care system meet the evolving needs of its patients and the professionals who care for them? As the role of advanced practice nurses evolves in today's health care landscape, it is becoming increasingly important for practitioners to not only deliver high-quality patient care but also to take on active leadership roles in health care systems and organizations. The growing prevalence of Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) programs reflects this movement toward comprehensive, evidence-based education for family nurse practitioners (FNPs) and other advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs). 

Organizations such as the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) have been strong proponents of the implementation of the DNP, formally endorsing the degree in 2004. According to the AACN, this doctoral degree “provides a clinical option for advanced preparation in nursing practice that is more comparable to other intraprofessional education.” By defining the DNP as the terminal practice degree for nurses, the nursing profession will be aligning more closely with other health professions such as medicine (MD), dentistry (DDS), and pharmacy (PharmD).

What Is a DNP?

Unlike the research-focused Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in nursing, the DNP is practice-focused and builds on education acquired through traditional master’s programs. These programs concentrate on helping practitioners cultivate the skills needed to assume leadership positions in a health setting, improve patient outcomes, and strengthen health care delivery systems. The model proposed by the AACN supports several pathways through which practitioners can earn this degree, including progression from BS/BA to DNP or MSN to DNP.

DNP coursework typically includes core courses that cover essential areas defined by the AACN, including organizational leadership, technology, health care policy, collaboration, population health, and advance nursing practice. The DNP places less emphasis on theory, statistics, and research methodology than nursing PhD programs do. Instead of completing a research project and dissertation, students participate in integrative practice experiences that culminate in a final DNP project. These experiences may be based in a variety of health care settings, including hospitals, clinics, and long-term care centers. The AACN predicts that nurses with this doctoral preparation, which it describes as “a blend of clinical, organizational, economic, and leadership skills,” will significantly affect health care outcomes. 

Post-master’s DNP programs can typically be completed in approximately two academic years of full-time study. Because many students are working professionals, some schools now offer DNP programs online or as blended learning formats that allow students to coordinate coursework with their work schedule.

Benefits of Earning a DNP

For nurses with an MSN, BS, or BA degree, there are several advantages to earning a DNP — namely, more advanced clinical practice experience and new career opportunities.

Although the AACN endorsement does not affect state licensing agencies that determine the legal status and scope of practice for Nurse Practitioners (NPs) — that is, earning a DNP does not expand a practitioner’s scope of practice — it does prepare nurses for enhanced clinical roles, management of health systems, and health policy. For nurses who express an interest in teaching and nurse education, the DNP provides additional academic credentials for practice instruction.

The Growth of DNP Programs

The benefits of a DNP degree, coupled with the formal AACN endorsement, have led to a dramatic increase in the number of DNP programs being offered, from just 20 in 2006 to nearly 300 in 2015. The growing prevalence of DNP programs, however, does not mean that MSN programs are obsolete. Individual state governments, which determine the legal requirements for an NP to practice in a given state, still accept either a master’s or doctoral degree. AACN also affirms that “nurses with master’s degrees will continue to practice in their current capacities.”

Regardless of which path they pursue, future APRN candidates will have more opportunities to expand both their clinical and leadership skills than ever before. More robust educational options for nurse practitioners aren’t just beneficial for the nursing profession; in fact, they will help ensure that the U.S. health care system is equipped to deliver the best care possible.

Considering a DNP? Learn more about the new DNP online program offered through Nursing@Simmons.

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