How to be a successful nurse practitioner: Key skills


To be a successful nurse practitioner, it’s important to acquire and constantly develop a particular set of skills. Some people will naturally possess them, and some will gain them through their education, career and personal life. Whatever your situation, learning about the required skills and how they apply to the role can set you up for a successful career in this field. This article explores how you can become a successful nurse practitioner, focusing on the key skills needed to excel in the role and how you can develop them.

Becoming a nurse practitioner

Depending on where you are in your career or education, you may be interested in learning how to become a nurse practitioner. Acquiring this position requires a significant amount of education, with evidence-based coursework and experience working in a clinical environment. Some aspiring nurses also go on to acquire relevant certificates to bolster their knowledge and skills, such as an AGACNP post master’s certificate. Over the course of their education and training, nurse practitioners learn how to diagnose illnesses, manage them and prescribe medications and other treatment options. Here’s an overview of the path to becoming a nurse practitioner:

1. Study for a nursing bachelor’s degree

The first step in becoming a nurse practitioner is earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). It’s necessary to acquire this degree even if you hold a bachelor’s degree in another field, as this will give you the foundational knowledge required for the profession. Students who hold other degrees may be able to gain admission into an accelerated BSN program, which can allow you to earn the relevant nursing degree in just two years, as opposed to the typical four years. Admission into these courses is subject to the successful completion of prerequisite science courses.

If you’re a registered nurse with an associate degree in nursing, you may also be eligible for a Registered Nurse to a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (RN to BSN) course, which is a bridge program for those with nursing diplomas. Depending on how quickly you complete the required classes and how many classes you need to take, these programs can last between one and two years.

2. Pass the NCLEX (National Council Licensure Examination) to become a licensed RN

The next step is to obtain your state license by passing the National Council Licensure Examination, which is a national board certification exam. This exam has been a requirement for nurses in several countries, including Canada and Australia, since 1982. It’s a relatively difficult examination that tests your critical reasoning, assessment skills and your knowledge of nursing. Before you can take the test, you first need to contact your state’s nursing regulatory body and acquire an ATT (Authorization to Test). Without it, you’re unable to sit the exam or gain an RN license.

After you successfully complete the exam, you’re eligible to gain a license as a registered nurse, which you must apply for in your home state. Every state requires RNs to be licensed, so it’s essential to complete this step so you can progress. Depending on the state in which you apply, it can take approximately 30 days for your license to practice to arrive. This license must also be renewed every three years, with continuing education courses to be taken regularly, as this ensures nurses are up to date with the latest developments in the field.

3. Complete a graduate program

As nursing practitioners are advanced medical professionals, it’s necessary for them to acquire a relevant master’s degree, such as a Master of Science in Nursing degree. This builds upon their earlier training and education, sufficiently elevating their understanding and further preparing them for the job. Further to your master’s degree, obtaining a DNP (Doctor of Nursing) qualification can allow you to provide the best standards of care and practice medicine on your own. These programs build on the knowledge acquired in master’s degree programs and further specialize you to work in your desired area of medicine.

While it’s not currently necessary to acquire a doctorate degree to be a nurse practitioner, many are choosing to pursue this option for the practical advantages it affords. Besides specializing in an area you’re passionate about, studying for a doctorate degree enables you to take on leadership roles within healthcare settings and gain increased job security. You can also significantly improve your earning potential with such an advanced nursing qualification. As this is the highest level of nursing degree, gaining one can dramatically expand the job opportunities you have access to.

4. Pass the National NP Certification Board exam and gain NP licensure

The final step in becoming a fully qualified and licensed nurse practitioner is passing the national board certification exam that relates to your specialty. Once passed, you can then apply in your state for an NP license. This must be renewed periodically, and to renew, you must complete some activities and meet certain criteria, such as completing some continuing education. You can determine the specific requirements that apply to you by contacting the certification board and relevant regulatory body. Nurses can also gain various certificates along the way to further bolster their skills and knowledge.

Skills for a successful nurse practitioner 

Once trained and licensed, you’re theoretically ready to work as a nurse practitioner, but to really excel in the role, it’s important to develop some key skills. These can help you get the most out of your career, interact with patients effectively and advance to the highest-paying positions. Here are some skills to work on for a successful career in this field:

1. Compassion

Being a naturally compassionate person will help you tremendously in your career as a nurse practitioner, as it will not only drive you to seek the best outcomes for those in your care, but it will make the job highly rewarding. Patients place a great deal of trust in doctors and nurses, and many of them experience pain, suffering and even death while in their care. For these reasons, displaying compassion can dramatically ease their discomfort, and helping to reduce their stress levels can also be good for their health.

2. Integrity

Integrity is another essential quality for nurse practitioners, as it’s important for healthcare professionals to build rapport with patients, and this requires honesty and strong moral principles. Without integrity and the ability to invoke trust, nurses cannot do their jobs effectively because they can’t expect patients to open up to them about their thoughts and feelings. This position is also one of authority, making integrity even more essential than it would be in another profession. Nurses hear and see things that are extremely personal and sensitive to people, so it’s important for patients to know they are in good hands.

Another reason why integrity is important in this profession is because nurses have a great deal of responsibility, and as a result, they are accountable for their actions. If a nurse practitioner makes a mistake, for example, or if another medical professional under their direction makes a mistake, it’s essential for this to be identified and reported. Seemingly small mistakes, such as mixing up documents or prescribing the wrong dose of a medication, can seriously impact the wellbeing of patients. So, it’s extremely important for nurses to display integrity and be honest about errors so they can be corrected.

3. Attentiveness

Another reason why integrity is important in this profession is that nurses have a great deal of responsibility, and as a result, they are accountable for their actions. If a nurse practitioner makes a mistake, for example, or if another medical professional under their direction makes a mistake, it’s essential for this to be identified and reported. Seemingly small mistakes, such as mixing up documents or prescribing the wrong dose of a medication, can seriously impact the well-being of patients. So, it’s extremely important for nurses to display integrity and be honest about errors so they can be corrected.

When diagnosing patients and performing examinations, attentiveness is one of the most essential qualities a nurse can have. Even when you’re listening carefully to what a patient says, they may not always be a reliable source of information for many reasons. Often, the nurse must combine their observations with what the patient tells them and the results of various tests to form conclusions, all of which require high levels of attention and precision. Also, attentiveness can help you to avoid making assumptions, as assuming things without the proper evidence can be dangerous in this profession.

4. Interpersonal skills

Nursing involves interacting with people constantly, including organizational leaders, other healthcare professionals and patients. So, it’s vital to be an effective communicator and have great interpersonal skills. Nurse practitioners communicate in various ways, and the job requires them to have strong writing, speaking and listening skills. Effective communication in all these areas is imperative, as miscommunications can lead to serious problems, such as patients being confused about how to follow treatment plans or other staff receiving unclear directions. Here are some things you can keep in mind when trying to speak and listen effectively:

  • Speak simply and directly
  • Reiterate key information
  • Maintain eye contact
  • Confirm that people understand what you say
  • Always clarify if something is unclear
  • Ensure people can see you’re listening

5. Competence

Being a competent practitioner is an obvious skill, but it can’t be neglected, even as the years go by. There’s always more to learn in this field and always areas in which you can improve, so be sure to maintain your competence in all relevant areas. Once you are entirely competent in your respective area, you can more confidently practice independently. Overestimating your competence can put patients at risk, so it’s important to be realistic and highly self-aware. Never practice outside your realm of expertise, as it’s essential to be fully trained and experienced before attempting new things.

You can develop your competencies in various ways, including by attending courses and completing certification programs in relevant areas, or by shadowing more senior employees. Always ask questions if you’re uncertain, and constantly develop your knowledge through self-study and research. Many organizations also host seminars and conferences for nurse practitioners, and these are certainly worth attending.

6. Empathy

This quality is similar to compassion, but different in important ways, and these differences are crucial in the field of nursing. Empathy means being able to place yourself in another’s position and imagine what they’re feeling and thinking, which is an invaluable skill as a nurse. Many patients may not be able to communicate their problems effectively, so if a nurse can place themselves into their patients’ shoes successfully, they can often find clues as to the nature of their issues. Empathy is also an important quality for trust building, as it can help you show that you understand how patients feel.

Empathy is a trait that comes naturally to some people, but it’s possible to develop your empathy skills. Tips for increasing your empathy skills involve identifying and eliminating your own biases that come from your individual worldview, as others may not share your beliefs and opinions as they have their own worldviews. Temporarily adopting the worldviews of others can help you understand how they feel about things. Practicing empathizing with people and gathering feedback from them can help you gauge and improve your empathy skills.

7. Time management

Nurse practitioners are busy people and the demands placed on them are increasing constantly. For these reasons, knowing how to manage your time effectively so you can dedicate it to people fairly is crucial. The way you manage your time can directly impact the experiences of patients, as they may have to wait unnecessarily if you don’t complete tasks within acceptable time periods. This is not to say that nurse practitioners should rush, however, but it’s crucial for them to use the time they spend with patients wisely. Learning how to control conversations to avoid digression is a good time-management skill.

8. Analytical skills

Diagnosing illnesses and prescribing effective treatments can be viewed as a form of complex problem-solving, so it’s great for nurses to have advanced analytical skills. This helps them analyze the evidence they have and make sensible conclusions for the betterment of their patients. Nurses must gather and analyze complex data, solve problems and make intelligent decisions. Having such skills helps nurses treat patients not only quickly, but effectively, and both are essential for helping patients in the best possible way. Being analytical means challenging assumptions, asking questions, considering potential outcomes, exercising critical thinking skills and making evidence-based decisions.

9. Physical, emotional and mental endurance

The job of a nurse practitioner is rewarding in numerous ways, but it’s also physically, emotionally and mentally taxing. This is because while nursing plays a direct role in helping people and saving lives, it’s also impossible to help every single patient, meaning nurses often witness distressing scenes. Healthcare professionals often form close bonds with each other and support one another through difficult and stressful times, which eases much of the burden. Regardless, nurse practitioners need to be highly resilient so they can cope with the inherent stresses and upsetting events.

Physical endurance is also important, as nurses spend a great deal of time on their feet and often work long hours, including night shifts. Mental and physical endurance is vital so nurses can maintain all the other important skills, even when tired or stressed. You can develop physical and even mental and emotional endurance by maintaining a healthy lifestyle and fostering positive sleeping habits. Being generally healthy can help you maintain your energy levels and remain calm, even in the face of unexpected changes or challenges.

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