Melissa DeCapua, DNP, PMHNP, and founder of popular nursing site, Modern Nurse, explains five things you should know about nurse practitioners, a growing group of healthcare professionals addressing the nationwide shortage of healthcare providers. 

You most likely think of visiting a doctor when you're feeling under the weather, but you could also visit a nurse practitioner. When trying to find a new health care provider, you might want to learn some more about this flourishing group of health specialists.

NPs provide high-qualitycost effective care to millions of Americans, particularly vulnerable populations and those living in rural, under-served areas. Nurse practitioners are licensed, independent providers who do not need to work under the direct supervision of a physician. To date, over 205,000 NPs practice in the United States with over 17,000 new graduates each year.

Every year, NPs complete over 916 million patient visits. At some point in his or her life, each person will have contact with a NP; therefore, it is important to understand who they are and what they do. Below are five things everyone should know about NPs and their role in modern healthcare.

1. Advanced Education

Nurse practitioners possess advanced degrees: either a master's or doctorate degree. Acceptance into NP school is highly-competitive with only a small percentage of applicants granted admission. Students must first pass their National Council Licensure Examination before applying to NP school and take extensive life science courses such as anatomy, physiology, microbiology, chemistry, nutrition, abnormal psychology, and pathophysiology. During NP school, students undergo rigorous clinical education, high-tech patient simulations, and even more science courses. Nurse practitioner school cultivates highly intelligent, expert clinicians.

2. Specialization

Nurse practitioners must choose a medical specialty before entering NP school. Their education focuses on their chosen area of clinical focus. Specialties include acute care, adult health, family health, gerontology, neonatal health, pediatrics, psychiatry, or women’s health. Nurse practitioners may also pursue a subspeciality, which requires additional education and clinical hours. Subspecialities include oncology, immunology, cardiology, dermatology, emergency, endocrinology, gastroenterology, neurology, occupational health, orthopedics, pulmonology, sports medicine, and urology.

3. Diagnose & Treat Medical Conditions

Nurse practitioners diagnose and treat medical conditions within their area of expertise, which includes both acute and chronic illnesses. A psychiatric nurse practitioner, for example, diagnoses and treats conditions such as schizophrenia, substance withdrawal, and bipolar disorder. A pediatric nurse practitioner on the other hand diagnoses and treats conditions such as asthma, cystic fibrosis, and ear infections.

To date, 21 states and the District of Columbia allow NPs to diagnose and treat patients without any physician oversight. Diagnostic skills are incredibly complex and require intense education and practice. A recent study published this year found that NP’s diagnostic reasoning abilities in complex medical cases compared favorably with those of physicians. Following diagnosis, NPs treat these conditions holistically by prescribing medication, ordering and interpreting laboratory and diagnostic tests, and providing comprehensive patient counseling.

4. Prescribe Medication

Nurse practitioners prescribe medication in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. They can also prescribe controlled substances such as oxycodone, Adderall, and Xanax in 49 states. The American Association of Nurse Practitioners reports that 97.2% of NPs in the United States prescribe medication, and they write an average of 19 orders per day. For decades now, NPs have been safely and effectively prescribing medication to treat a wide range of medical conditions. Interestingly, a 2009 study found that healthcare teams led by nurse practitioners had overall lower medication costs and less drug utilization.

5. Order & Interpret Laboratory & Diagnostic Tests

Nurse practitioners order and interpret both laboratory and diagnostic tests. Commonly ordered laboratory tests include a complete blood count, serum iron tests, vitamin assays, sexually transmitted disease tests, and liver, kidney, and thyroid function tests. Other diagnostic tests that NPs both order and interpret include x-rays, ultrasounds, MRIs, CT scans, ECGs, and EEGs. Nurse practitioner use these tests to help diagnose and guide the treatment of their patient’s medical condition.