Explaining the Unique Role of Nurse Practitioners in Healthcare

The demand for nurse practitioners is high across the United States, especially in rural communities. There will be a 52 percent increase in NP job openings between 2020 and 2030, adding 114,900 jobs across the country. NPs are a vital part of the nation’s healthcare system as they bring a holistic perspective and personal touch to patient care. And with the aging population nationally, there is an increased need for team-based primary care delivery, which NPs can lead.

In a research study titled “Consumer Perspectives on Nurse Practitioners and Independent Practice,” researchers found that 82 percent of patients were satisfied or very satisfied with the care they received from a nurse practitioner, compared to a 70 percent satisfaction rate for other types of providers. This study showed the widespread acceptance of NPs as independent providers.

This is why it is imperative for nurse practitioners to be prepared to explain their role to both patients and other healthcare workers.

The Creation of the Nurse Practitioner

The first nurse practitioner program was at the University of Colorado, created by Loretta Ford and Henry Silver in 1965. At the time, there was a large need for primary care among underserved populations. Nurses saw a way to expand their role to fulfill this need. As a result, Ford and Silver created the nurse practitioner position to care for patients and make clinical decisions that would help them live healthier lives.

Since then, the physician shortage has led to an increased demand for advanced practice providers. This is especially prevalent in rural areas where primary care physicians are a rare commodity. More universities have created nurse practitioner programs to accommodate this need. To date, there are more than 325,000 nurse practitioners licensed in the United States.

The scope of practice for NPs can differ by state and specialty. Some states such as California and Georgia require an NP to practice under a supervising physician. Other states such as Washington and Maine allow NPs to work autonomously. Certain states allow NPs to own their own practice, but regulations vary.

NPs are important organizational leaders that will help lead healthcare reform. They are supported by the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP), which was established in 1985. With the increased availability of nurse practitioners, it is important that an NP is confident in explaining their role to patients and co-workers.

What is Holistic Nursing?

Although there is a lot of overlap between physicians and nurse practitioners, holistic care is the foundation of nursing. This makes NPs as providers quite unique. Holistic nursing focuses on the health of the whole person. It addresses the interconnectedness of the mind, body, spirit, emotions, culture, and environment. All of these aspects create the person, so in order to help improve illness, the holistic nurse looks at all aspects and how they affect the patient’s health.

Holistic nurses utilize traditional medicine practices in combination with alternative medicine to treat patients. It provides a better understanding of the effects of illnesses on a patient’s response and their needs. Holistic care allows nurses to assess motivational factors for improved health and social support. It also promotes patient-centered care.

A holistic nurse integrates the principles of holistic healing into clinical practice and personal care. The field urges nurses to combine self-care, spirituality, and reflection in their own lives as well. It is practiced in all healthcare settings from pediatrics to geriatrics, from hospitals to nursing homes to hospice. 

Regardless of the setting of holistic nursing practice, nurses must continue to cultivate their knowledge and skills in their practice because holistic nursing is not only a way of thinking but also a way of practicing and living life.

Quality of Nurse Practitioner Practice

The AANP has researched the quality of nurse practitioner practice over the past several decades. Their research demonstrates that NPs provide “high-quality primary, acute and specialty healthcare services across the life span.” NPs serve as clinicians who combine clinical expertise in diagnosing and treating acute and chronic disease with an additional emphasis on illness prevention and patient education. As a result, they bring a comprehensive perspective to healthcare.

In a 2018 study titled “Quality of Primary Care Provided to Medicare Beneficiaries by Nurse Practitioners and Physicians,” among many others, research demonstrated that NP care is comparable in quality to that of their physician colleagues. In fact, patients under the care of NPs were found to have had fewer unnecessary hospital admissions and higher patient satisfaction than patients under the care of physicians.

Educating Patients on the Nurse Practitioner Role

The role of NPs is relatively new, so it is helpful to educate patients on the scope of practice of an NP. It is a great way to promote acceptance and understanding of this profession. The goal is to have a society where NPs do not have to justify themselves to their patients.

It is best to introduce oneself as a nurse practitioner and explain that further education was pursued to help them specialize. It’s important to emphasize that NPs have advanced, graduate-trained knowledge that allows them to diagnose and treat both acute and chronic problems. Their advanced clinical training permits them to prescribe medications, perform minor procedures, order laboratory tests, and provide patient education and counseling.

Additionally, it is best to explain that NPs work with patients to promote health, prevent disease, and guide smarter health choices. This can include screenings such as exams, labs, or testing. It can also include medical interventions such as prescriptions for medications and diet or fitness programs. 

Be sure to detail how NP training emphasizes better-quality health and disease prevention rather than just disorder management. The NP role is versatile, with strong roots in patient education, health promotion, and interprofessional practice. This allows NPs to function in a wide variety of practice settings that care for patients across the lifespan.

By having a nursing background, NPs also are able to be healthcare providers and provide soft skills such as empathy and compassion to their patients. They offer emotional support and listen to patients and communities to understand their health needs. This lets NPs build relationships with patients and their families. 

It also permits NPs to consider their patients holistically—emotionally, physically, spiritually, and psychologically—which often leads to better patient outcomes. Patients love this concept because it makes them feel more involved in their health choices. For instance, they can choose to take medication for their illness or try lifestyle changes per the recommendation of the NP.

Above all, nurse practitioners have emotional intelligence which allows them to gain patients’ trust. They use these skills to diagnose and treat health conditions, as well as create patient care plans. Tthe NP role does not stop after prescribing medication, but continues with the emphasis on the provider-patient relationship to empower the patient to act in improving their overall health.

Explaining the Nurse Practitioner Role to Other Healthcare Workers

Similar to patients, other healthcare workers are sometimes unaware of the exact function of a nurse practitioner. This includes physicians, therapists, supportive staff, and administration. NPs are advised to explain the common population foci of an NP. They can specialize in family health, mental health, women’s health, and pediatric health. They may work independently and in collaboration with other healthcare professionals. They may work in private practices, clinics, hospitals, nursing homes, home health, and hospice.

The NP can explain that they need at least a master of science in nursing degree, which includes advanced clinical training hours. They are also required to hold a national certification in their specialty and an active state license in order to practice. It is mandatory for them to complete continued learning education and maintain clinical competency. Depending on the state and setting of practice, they may also be required to hold malpractice insurance.

NPs may also have emergency care skills which allow them to quickly assess and address medical issues. These are skills such as wound care, starting an IV, or assessing an airway. NPs know how to take vital signs, provide counseling to patients and their families, and help them understand new diagnoses and treatments.

Overall, NPs focus on health promotion, disease prevention, and health education. Using the holistic care model, they emphasize the health and well-being of the whole person. They can explain how this may differ from a physician that mainly studies the science of medicine.

Some healthcare administrators may refer to an NP as a “mid-level provider.” This term is inaccurate and misleading, as it implies that NPs are inferior to physicians. The best term to use when encompassing all nurse practitioners is “advanced practice provider,” considering NPs have graduate education and training. 

In sum, when explaining their role to administrators and peers, NPs need to advocate for themselves and the preferred term to use.

Sophia Khawly, MSN

Sophia Khawly, MSN


Sophia Khawly is a traveling nurse practitioner from Miami, Florida. She has been a nurse for 14 years and has worked in nine different states. She likes to travel in her spare time and has visited over 40 countries.

Being a traveling nurse practitioner allows her to combine her love of learning, travel, and serving others. Learn more about Sophia at www.travelingNP.com.