What Skills Are Needed to Be a Nurse Practitioner?

Female nurse practitioner demonstrating communication skills
Female nurse practitioner demonstrating communication skills

The nurse practitioner (NP) role is a growing field with exciting opportunities. Ranked the No. 1 best healthcare job by U.S. News & World Report, it’s a field with many enticing benefits, including:

  • Competitive pay
  • Strong demand for workers
  • Upward professional mobility
  • A variety of options for work settings, patient populations and specialties

With appealing prospects, many working and aspiring nurses have their sights set on becoming nurse practitioners and want to know what skills will make them successful. This blog will highlight the top skills needed to be a nurse practitioner and how to acquire them through education and hands-on experience.

Clinical Nurse Practitioner Skills

In almost every industry and job role there are “hard” and “soft” skills that make an employee well-rounded and effective. For nurse practitioners, clinical skills make up the bulk of the hard skills necessary for the job. Some clinical skills NPs must master include:

Conducting physical exams

The physical exam is the foundation of medical care. To provide the best treatment to a patient, an NP must first assess their physical condition and note any anomalies that could be the cause or symptoms of illness. Physical exams can include a number of measures that an NP considers to get the full picture of a patient’s health, such as:

  • Blood pressure
  • Heart rate
  • Body weight and BMI
  • Respiratory capacity

Physical exams can also check for the presence of lumps, bumps, or other skin lesions that could indicate underlying disease. Along with assessing a patient’s body during the physical exam, an NP will also compile a health record, including family history, to understand how a patient’s past can affect their health and for what conditions they may be at increased risk.

Ordering tests and lab work and interpreting results

NPs must understand the utility of various tests, such as bloodwork and specimen swabs, to order them when appropriate. When results come back, NPs must be able to interpret them for patients. Beyond just relaying results, they must use other NP skills to educate patients on what the results mean for their health.

Making diagnoses

Based on findings of an advanced health assessment, an NP needs to be able to make diagnoses and develop a treatment plan. Making a diagnosis helps patients understand the root of their illness and serves as the basis of a treatment plan. In some cases, an NP will feel a specialist is better suited to make a diagnosis, they will use additional nurse practitioner skills to make a referral and manage the transition of care to another provider.

Prescribing medication and formulating treatment plans

With a confirmed diagnosis, NPs must construct treatment plans, including medication. While there are some conditions for which the treatment may be straightforward, NPs must also consider each patient’s circumstances, such as their social determinants of health, and ensure that treatment plans are realistic for the patient’s lifestyle.

Helping patients manage illness and maintain wellness

NPs see many patients whose conditions are not urgent, emergent or acute, but rather they may be chronic or develop over a lifetime. NPs will counsel patients on disease management and overall health maintenance as well. This often requires good listening and interpersonal NP skills because they must make recommendations that patients are likely to adhere to. If a patient finds a management plan too onerous, expensive or complicated, they may not follow it and their health can suffer.

Depending on where a nurse practitioner works, the clinical NP skills they use on the job are impacted by their state’s practice authority laws. Practice authority refers to what an NP is allowed to do on the job. Some states grant full practice authority for nurse practitioners, meaning that NPs are allowed to perform the full scope of their role without supervision or limitation. This article includes clinical skills that are consistent with full practice authority.

Female nurse practitioner communicating medical diagnosis to patient

Nurse Practitioner Communication Skills

Educating patients

One of the most important NP skills is patient education. A diagnosis and treatment plan are useless if a patient does not understand them and thus does not know how to act on them. NPs must translate complex medical information into terms and language that patients can understand. NPs must be realistic about risks, diagnoses and prognoses without being alarmist. They must be supportive and encouraging without being overbearing. They must strike a balance in their communication so that patients feel empowered to take the necessary steps to achieve good health while fully understanding the reality of their current condition.

Communicating with other medical professionals

NPs often communicate with other medical professionals, such as the nurses and medical assistants they work with on the job. In some cases, they will also need to communicate with physicians and other medical providers to whom they are transferring a patient. NPs need to relay all findings and history to specialists, and they must be able to explain to the patient why they are transferring care.

Practicing telemedicine

While telemedicine has solved some unique challenges around health care accessibility, it also presents its own hurdles. NPs must be able to not only communicate health information, but they must also be prepared to communicate technical instructions to help patients use telehealth technology. NPs have to understand how to modify their communication to overcome barriers that telehealth can present, such as connectivity issues and the limits of two-dimensional video.

Nurse Practitioner Leadership Skills

In many settings NPs are the top provider on the patient care team, and therefore lead other members. NPs may work with medical assistants, phlebotomists, physical therapists, nursing assistants and nurses to coordinate various elements of patient care, with all looking to the NP for leadership and guidance. NPs are calm, organized and supportive to the rest of the team to ensure all members work together effectively for the best patient outcomes.

NPs must be able to manage their own stress and that of their teams. It is important that they modify workloads and schedules to minimize burnout and maintain morale.

Administrative Nurse Practitioner Skills

The NP role demands that nurse practitioners have excellent time management and organizational skills. They will dedicate time to each of their patients and triage by the nature of their conditions. NPs must take diligent and precise notes for accurate record keeping and be proficient in technologies, such as electronic medical records, to ensure there are no gaps in a patient’s history.

Specialty Nurse Practitioner Skills

Some nurse practitioners specialize in certain disciplines and must have additional skills beyond those recommended for all NPs. Consider the examples below and how the skills needed for each differ.

Psychiatric Mental Health NP Skills

Psychiatric mental health NPs must be skilled in taking mental health histories and conducting mental health evaluations. This is a unique skill set that requires attention to detail and impeccable listening skills. Mental health is not as easily observed as physical health and can require interrogative skills to puzzle out issues that may underlie behaviors, thoughts and emotions.

Becoming a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner can be achieved by completing a specialized master’s degree that focuses on the practice of mental health.

Family Nurse Practitioner Skills

Family nurse practitioners (FNPs) can treat patients across the lifespan, including children and geriatrics, so they must have even broader skills to work with all age ranges of patients. Working with such a vast age range requires FNPs to change their communication style and even their demeanor to make patients feel comfortable at every stage of life. They also know how to change their education methods to match the maturity and life experience of each patient.

Becoming a family nurse practitioner can be achieved by completing a specialized master’s degree that focuses on the practice of family medicine or by attaining a post-master’s certificate in family medicine.

How to Become a Nurse Practitioner

To become a nurse practitioner, the first step is to become an RN either through a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) program or associate degree in nursing (ADN). Next, you must earn a master of science in nursing degree (MSN). Nurses with a bachelor’s degree can immediately pursue a master’s degree, whereas nurses with an associate degree will need to complete some additional courses before embarking on a master’s degree. This can be done in an RN to MSN program, which is tailored to provide the most efficient route from ADN to MSN.

While completing a degree program, aspiring NPs also need to complete nurse practitioner clinicals in which they gain hands-on experience putting what they learned in the classroom into practice in a clinical setting.

Smiling male nurse practitioner

Nurse Practitioner Degree and Certificate Programs at Wilkes University

Wilkes University is a school that has been preparing nurses to think critically and treat patients with compassion and knowledge for more than 80 years. Its APRN certificates are accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education and has been a top-ranked university by U.S. News & World Report for more than 15 years.

Wilkes offers online NP degrees and certificates that are affordable, flexible and respected. It has programs for every route from RN to NP, including:

  • RN to MSN (for RNs with an ADN who want to be nurse practitioners)
  • MSN (for RNs with a BSN who want to become nurse practitioners)
  • Post-master’s NP certificates (for NPs who want to earn additional certificates in various specialties such as psychiatric/mental health, family nurse practitioner and adult-gerontology nurse practitioner)

Advance your nursing degree with an online graduate nursing degree from Wilkes University.