A doctorate of nursing practice is one of the newer degrees in the nursing profession, but it is rapidly gaining ground as the best degree for preparing nurses for advanced practice roles. You will generally hear this degree program referred to as the doctor of nursing practice (DNP).

DNP as the New Standard

Until recently, the standard degree for someone seeking to become an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) was a master’s level degree. If you wanted to become a clinical nurse specialist, nurse practitioner, certified nurse midwife or nurse anesthetist, you would pursue a master of science in nursing (MSN). Then in 2004, the nursing schools belonging to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) endorsed the decision to switch the standard level of preparation for APRN roles from master’s to doctorate level by 2015. In the intervening years, that change has begun to be implemented resulting in 243 DNP programs in 48 states and Washington, D.C., with another 59 programs being planned. By 2013, there were over 14,000 students enrolled in DNP programs. The nursing field is only one of many healthcare fields, including dentistry, pharmacy and physical therapy that has created and implemented a practice doctorate.

Elements of the DNP Program

A doctorate of nursing practice is a degree that focuses on practice rather than merely emphasizing academic research. It prepares graduates to have the skills to assess and diagnose patients and to improve healthcare systems overall. Graduates of a DNP program should be prepared to assess health outcomes in communities and patient groups. Generally, DNP programs offer two tracks. One is the APRN track that helps nurses become advanced practice nurses. Those students will take courses in physical assessment, pharmacology, advanced physiology and other subjects that will enable them to provide an advanced level of care to patients in a clinical setting. The other track is in systems or organizational leadership. The studies in this track will focus more on information technology, healthcare policy and critical thinking skills that will help nurses to evaluate healthcare programs. The idea behind the program is to educate nurses to be experts in their field. While the focus of the degree is practice, not research, some academic research is definitely required. Most DNP students have to show mastery of a particular nursing area through a research project before they graduate.

The idea behind such a rigorous professional degree as the DNP seems to be that DNP graduates will be able to integrate their research into practice and evaluation that will benefit patients and healthcare as a whole. With the increasing complexity of healthcare delivery, it’s essential that nurses become excellent leaders and advocates who can both mentor and train other nurses and offer leadership in areas such as health care policy. With information technology becoming increasingly important in healthcare, the DNP offers nurses an opportunity to learn to use technology to improve overall care for patients and communities.

Although many nurses still pursue the MSN (please see: Is Getting an MSN worth it?), others are beginning to seek the DNP degree. As more of these programs are offered, it is likely that a doctorate of nursing practice is increasingly seen as the terminal degree in the nursing profession.