What Does a Nurse Practitioner Do? (NP Duties by Specialty)
Written By: Lauren Jacobson MS, RN, WHNP-BC
Nurse practitioners are a type of Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) who provide care to patients in a variety of settings. Nurse practitioners at a minimum need a master’s degree in nursing. So, what does a nurse practitioner do? As a nurse practitioner, you will assess, diagnose, and treat patients. Nurse practitioners work in many different settings including but not limited to hospitals, primary care, specialty clinics, schools and universities, and community health centers. Here we will go over nurse practitioner duties and responsibilities in different specialties.
Nurse Practitioner Duties and Responsibilities by Specialty
There are several types of nurse practitioner specialties, and the duties and responsibilities vary based on the type of specialty. So, in order to give a more accurate answer to the question what does a nurse practitioner do? Let us look into the duties and responsibilities for each of the 24 different types of major nurse practitioner specialties.
1. Acute Care Nurse Practitioner
An acute care nurse practitioner provides care to patients with acute conditions. This may be in a hospital, a specialty clinic such as oncology or neurology, urgent care, or emergency departments, in a surgical service or other settings. In this specialty you will be involved in assessing, diagnosing, and treating acute conditions as well as evaluating treatment success. Depending on where you work you may also do certain surgical procedures and will likely be a part of a bigger healthcare team.
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2. Adult-Gerontology Nurse Practitioner
As an adult-gerontology nurse practitioner, you can specialize in either primary care or acute care during your education. You will provide healthcare to patients from adulthood through the end of life and will be skilled in assessing for and diagnosing acute or chronic conditions, providing preventative care, and developing trusting patient-provider relationships that will help your patients achieve optimal health. You will be able to prescribe medications and like most nurse practitioners will work as a part of the greater healthcare team to care for your patients. As an adult-gerontology nurse practitioner, you can work in a variety of settings including outpatient clinics, hospitals, home health, community health, prison systems, and more.
3. Aesthetic Nurse Practitioner
Aesthetic nurse practitioners are often also referred to as cosmetic nurse practitioners who are trained to provide specialty care to patients in aesthetic medicine settings. In this specialty, you can work in environments like plastic surgery, dermatology, or other specialty clinics. Aesthetic nurse practitioner responsibilities focus on providing laser treatments and injection procedures that may be for antiaging purposes or to eliminate or minimize certain cosmetic health conditions such as varicose veins. You will likely work alongside a physician counterpart as an aesthetic nurse practitioner.
4. Cardiology Nurse Practitioner
As a cardiology nurse practitioner
, you will care for patients with cardiovascular conditions such as hypertension, congestive heart failure, arrhythmias, atherosclerosis, and more. Some aspects of your work may be in preventing more severe consequences from conditions like hypertension or high cholesterol, while others may involve treating more irreversible chronic conditions like heart failure. In this role, you will assess, diagnose, treat, and evaluate the treatment progress for patients of a variety of ages. You may provide primary care duties or work in coronary care units (CCU), cardiac intensive care units (CICU), rehabilitation clinics, and more. The cardiac nurse practitioner responsibilities may also involve diagnostic procedures like cardiac catheterization.
5. Dermatology Nurse PractitionerDermatology nurse practitioners
are specialists in the body’s largest organ: the skin. In this role, you will focus on caring for people with skin conditions and providing preventative care and education on skin health. You will also focus on assessing, diagnosing, and treating conditions that affect the hair and nails. You will examine patients and take biopsies of suspicious lesions and interpret the pathology results when needed. You will develop care plans for patients who you see and follow up with them to see how they are progressing. Conditions that you treat will range from acne and eczema to more dangerous conditions like cancers of the skin.
6. Emergency Room Nurse Practitioner
As an emergency room nurse practitioner
, you will be where the action is. In this specialty, you are responsible for assessing and diagnosing acute or emergent conditions and stabilizing patients quickly. You will care for people with infectious diseases, heart attacks, traumatic injuries, psychiatric conditions, and more. You will be responsible for knowing how to interpret a variety of lab and imaging results to make accurate diagnoses, and you will care for people of all ages. Emergency room nurse practitioners are also responsible for things like suturing, prescribing medication and coordinating follow up for the patients.
7. Endocrinology Nurse Practitioner
Endocrinology nurse practitioners are experts in the body’s chemical messengers: hormones. You will be responsible for treating patients with conditions that affect the glands of their body and cause hormone imbalances. Some examples of this include diabetes, thyroid disorders, pituitary adenomas, polycystic ovarian syndrome, and more. You will be responsible for assessing patients through thorough histories, physical examination, lab work, and imaging. You then will develop a plan of care and follow up with the patient to assess progress.
8. Family Nurse Practitioner
Family nurse practitioners have diverse and flexible duties and responsibilities. As a family nurse practitioner
, depending on what practice environment you work in, you are responsible for caring for male and female patients across the life span. You will provide preventative and primary care and will treat acute and chronic conditions. Depending on where you work you will be responsible for doing well-child and well-woman exams, as well as routine physicals for other adults. You may also be required to do certain procedures like skin biopsies and long-acting contraceptive device insertions. Responsibilities also include taking detailed patient histories, conducting physical exams, interpreting lab and imaging results, and diagnosing and treating patients.
9. Forensic Nurse Practitioner
Forensic nurse practitioners are a unique group of providers that work at the intersection of healthcare and the legal system. Forensic nurse practitioner duties and responsibilities will vary depending on the environment you work in but may include providing care and collecting physical evidence from sexual assault victims. Providing trauma-informed care will be the cornerstone of all care you provide. You may also be responsible for developing policy to better support people who have survived violent crime, working alongside coroners, acting as expert witnesses in court, and more.
10. Holistic Nurse Practitioner
As a holistic nurse practitioner
, you will be skilled in integrating traditional medicine with other treatment modalities such as acupuncture, massage, meditation, preventative care, nutrition, and more to provide patient-centered holistic care. Your duties will include typical nurse practitioner duties such as taking patient histories, performing physical exams, ordering diagnostic tests, and writing prescriptions, but you will also use alternative medicine to augment the patient’s treatment plan. You will be responsible for looking at the entire patient and all the ways you can treat their condition or improve their health status while actively involving them in decision making.
11. Home Health Nurse Practitioner
Home health nurse practitioners quite literally meet the patients where they are. In this role, you will be responsible for not only assessing the patient but also their living environment as this can play a crucial role in their health. Your nurse practitioner duties while working in home health will include diagnosing and treating conditions and educating patients. One of your main responsibilities is to help patients learn how to manage their conditions at home which can decrease hospital admissions, increase patient autonomy, and prevent the negative financial and physical consequences of frequent hospital stays.
12. Hospice Nurse Practitioner
Providing end of life care is a noble and much-needed skill. As a hospice nurse practitioner, rather than optimizing health and treating conditions you will be responsible for optimizing patient comfort and providing a peaceful environment for them to die in. Being empathetic towards patients and families will be one of your most important duties. You may be responsible for working in a variety of environments including patient homes, residential facilities, and nursing homes. You will use your pharmacological training to ensure that patient comfort is optimized, and medications are not interacting to cause pain or discomfort. Hospice nurse practitioners often work on a team that strives to support the patient and their family.
13. Neonatal Nurse Practitioner
As a neonatal nurse practitioner
, you are responsible for caring for the newest and most vulnerable human beings. You will work in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), labor and delivery floor, pediatric clinic, or other environments where newborns will require specialized care. You will be responsible for caring for babies during the first 28 days of their lives. Sometimes this means you will provide care to premature infants or infants with diseases or illnesses. Depending on your work environment, responsibilities will include monitoring equipment such as incubators or ventilators, educating families, prescribing and administering medications, and making diagnoses. You will work with families and other healthcare providers to ensuring that newborns are able to thrive and receive the care that they need.
14. Nephrology Nurse Practitioner
In the nephrology specialty nurse practitioners care for patients with renal conditions. As the kidneys, heart, and endocrine system are closely linked this means you will be caring for patients with conditions like heart failure, diabetes, kidney stones, hypertension, and more. Your duties will include assessing, diagnosing, and treating these conditions as well as educating patients on nutrition and developing diet plans.
15. Neurology Nurse PractitionerNeurology nurse practitioners
are specialists in the brain, spinal cord, nervous and muscular systems. Your duties and responsibilities will be to care for patients with neurological disease or traumatic injuries to the nervous system. You will assess, diagnose, and develop treatment plans for patients suffering from diseases like multiple sclerosis, ALS, and more, as well as patients who have experienced traumatic brain or spinal cord injuries. You may perform and will be responsible for interpreting imaging and laboratory results. Given the far reach of the nervous system in the body, you will work as a part of a multidisciplinary team to provide patients with the best possible care.
16. Oncology Nurse Practitioner
Cancer is a devastating disease that requires compassionate and skilled providers. As an oncology nurse practitioner
, you will be responsible for evaluating patients with various types of cancer and working with them and their families, as well as other healthcare providers, to develop optimal care plans. You may work in a hospital, cancer center, hospice, or a specialty clinic like a breast care center. You may be involved in performing biopsies and other minor surgical procedures, as well as administering chemotherapy or performing research.
17. Orthopedic Nurse Practitioner
Working with patients in either clinics or hospitals, as an orthopedic nurse practitioner, you will care for patients with musculoskeletal conditions and injuries that can have a detrimental impact on their quality of life. You will take histories, examine patients, and order and interpret imaging like X-rays. You will work with the patient and their families to not only help them heal but to also minimize the negative effects of the condition and prevent further injury. You will be involved in patient education and if interested can also partake in research.
18. Pain Management Nurse Practitioner
Pain can be crippling and impact every aspect of a person’s life. With the current opioid epidemic having specialists who are skilled in helping patients manage their pain safely is essential. As a pain management nurse practitioner, you will be responsible for managing chronic or acute pain using a variety of treatment modalities including medications, physical therapy, alternative medicine such as acupuncture, mindfulness, and more. You will order and interpret laboratory and imagining results in addition to taking detailed patient histories and performing physical exams.
19. Palliative Care Nurse Practitioner
Palliative care is often confused with hospice care, and while there can be some overlap there are important differences. As a palliative care nurse practitioner, you are responsible for making patients as comfortable as possible while they continue healing. Palliative care nurse practitioners do not necessarily work with patients at the end of life, though they can. You also work with patients and their families on coping with chronic illness diagnoses. Like most nurse practitioners your duties will also include assessment, diagnosis, and treatment. You will be required to use your empathy and knowledge of chronic illness and psychology to care for the entire patient and their family as they battle difficult illnesses.
20. Pediatric Nurse Practitioner
If you love kids than working as a pediatric nurse practitioner
is the path for you. In this nurse practitioner role, you will provide primary or acute care to children depending on what certification exam you took. You will do well-child exams, work closely with parents to assess children, order imaging and labs when indicated, and diagnose and treat. You may work in hospital settings caring for more severely ill children, or in outpatient clinics or schools providing routine care. You will also be able to do small surgical procedures depending on your clinical setting.
21. Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner
Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners assess, diagnose, and treat a variety of mental health conditions for people of all ages. You may care for people suffering from addiction, trauma, depression, anxiety, personality disorders, schizophrenia, and more. Psychiatric mental health nurse
practitioners are responsible for prescribing psychiatric drugs and monitoring the patient’s response. You will work closely with patients to develop optimal treatment plans for their condition(s).
22. Surgical Nurse Practitioner
The term “surgical nurse practitioner” is broad, meaning your duties will vary depending on what type of surgery you are involved in. In this specialty, you will work closely with a surgeon. Surgical nurse practitioners work in a variety of settings and may provide surgical care to trauma patients, cardiac patients, and more. You will perform certain minor surgical procedures independently and then may assist and during larger more complex surgeries. One of your main responsibilities will be to provide preoperative and postoperative care which includes extensive patient education.
23. Urology Nurse Practitioner
As a urology nurse practitioner, you will work primarily with male and female patients dealing with medical issues involving the urinary tract, kidneys, and/or bladder. You will also work with men regarding reproductive health issues. You will assess, diagnose, and treat patients while providing education so that they can be an active part of optimizing their health. You may do certain procedures in the office such as catheterization or urodynamics.
24. Women's Health Nurse PractitionerWomen’s health nurse practitioners
provide comprehensive care to women across the lifespan with a special focus on obstetrics and gynecology. Women’s health nurse practitioner responsibilities may include doing well-woman exams, prescribing contraception, doing small procedures like endometrial biopsies and long-acting contraceptive device insertion, providing prenatal care, treating sexually transmitted infections, and much more. You may also have more specialized duties like working in a breast clinic and doing breast imaging and biopsies. Regardless of where you work, you will be responsible for providing patients centered and trauma-informed care.
What do nurse practitioners do? As you can see from the above list, they do a lot! Universally nurse practitioners in any specialty can be expected to assess, diagnose, and treat patients within their given specialty. All nurse practitioners need to be able to order and interpret diagnostic tests. Depending on where you work you may do procedures or focus on caring for patients of a certain age or with specific types of conditions. The wonderful thing about being a nurse practitioner is how flexible it is. Wherever you decide to work, you can always change your mind later and transition to a new specialty!
Lauren Jacobson MS, RN, WHNP-BC
Lauren Jacobson is a registered nurse and women’s health nurse practitioner who is passionate about global health and gender-based violence prevention. She is Editor and an Advisory Board Member for the Global Nursing Caucus and volunteers with Physicians for Human Rights as a medical evaluator for asylum seekers.