By Rachel Schneider
Family nurse practitioners (FNPs) are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) who provide primary care to patients of all ages. As such, they must prepare to diagnose and treat ailments that can affect people throughout their lifespan.
Traditionally, to gain certification as an APRN, a student needed to earn a master of science in nursing (MSN). However, there has been a shift in recent years toward raising this educational requirement to the doctor of nursing practice (DNP), the terminal practice degree in the field of nursing.
The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) has endorsed this transition and continues to push for widespread adoption of the DNP as the entry-level educational requirement for APRNs.
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Types of MSN-to-DNP FNP Programs
This article provides an overview of online MSN-to-DNP FNP programs, which allow master’s-level RNs to earn DNPs and gain certification in the FNP specialty area. These programs comprise both a DNP program and a post-master’s FNP certificate program. MSN-to-DNP FNP programs fall into three different groups based on their admission requirements:
MSN-to-DNP FNP New Specialty
Ideal for nurses who hold a master’s degree in non-APRN nursing fields, such as clinical nurse leader, nurse administration, or nursing education, this track allows students to pursue DNP degrees and APRN certification in the FNP specialty.
MSN-to-DNP FNP Second Specialty
Students who already hold certification in APRN specialty areas and want to pursue DNPs, along with a second FNP certification, can enroll in these programs.
MSN-to-DNP FNP Same Specialty
These programs require each enrollee to already possess an MSN and APRN certification in the FNP specialization. Students should pay particularly close attention to MSN-to-DNP programs with “family nurse practitioner” in the title, as they may fall into the category of “same specialty” programs.
Note: At this time, online MSN-to-DNP FNP same specialty programs are not included at OnlineFNPPrograms.com as they do not prepare students for licensure as FNPs.
New specialty and second specialty programs require students to complete core MSN-level courses, such as advanced health assessment, advanced pharmacology, and advanced pathophysiology. APRN students will have already completed these courses as part of their previous MSN program, and are typically not required to do so again in an MSN-to-DNP second specialty program.
Many schools offer both types of programs (or will waive courses that students have already completed); however, some schools only offer MSN-to-DNP FNP programs that require an APRN for admission, as they do not offer the core MSN courses online.
All of the MSN-to-DNP FNP programs listed at OnlineFNPPrograms.com are accredited by either the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing.
Admission Criteria for Online MSN-to-DNP FNP Programs
As mentioned above, MSN-to-DNP FNP programs fall into several different categories based on their admission requirements. Unfortunately, these types of programs do not share a standardized naming convention across institutions.
A university may offer a program that they refer to as “MSN-to-DNP new specialty,” even though the degree requires an APRN certification for admission. Thus, students should carefully read all program specifics and admission requirements to determine if they need APRN certification.
At OnlineFNPPrograms.com, we classify programs as either MSN-to-DNP FNP new specialty or MSN-to-DNP FNP second specialty. MSN-to-DNP FNP new specialty programs require an RN to hold a master’s degree from an accredited school of nursing in a field like clinical nurse leader, nurse administrator, nurse educator, public health, or nurse informatics.
For an MSN-to-DNP second specialty program, each prospective student must already possess an MSN from an accredited school of nursing and national APRN certification.
In either case, applicants must hold an active registered nurse (RN) license with no restrictions in their state of residence. Additionally, most schools require that each applicant possesses an overall graduate 3.0 GPA or higher, along with at least 1-2 years of professional nursing experience, but these specific requirements vary by program. As part of the application process, students usually must submit a resume/CV, one or more letters of recommendation, official transcripts from all previous postsecondary institutions, and a personal essay or goal statement.
Overview of Online MSN-to-DNP FNP Programs
As the DNP continues to gain traction, more schools offer online MSN-to-DNP programs. Nursing professionals who want to pursue doctorates but cannot commit to campus-based programs typically find online DNP programs ideal.
Instructors deliver courses in online MSN-to-DNP programs through synchronous instruction, asynchronous instruction, or a combination of the two. Synchronous instruction requires students to log on at specific times to view live-streamed lectures and participate in classroom discussions through video or text-based chat.
Asynchronous instruction uses recorded lectures, which enrollees can generally access at any time. While this method offers a greater degree of flexibility than synchronous instruction, students must still meet set deadlines for completing assignments.
Online students must travel to nearby healthcare facilities to complete their clinical placement hours. Additionally, most online MSN-to-DNP programs include on-campus intensives, for which students will need to visit campus to participate in orientation events, training exercises, or in-person lectures.
The number and length of these campus visits vary by program. At OnlineFNPPrograms.com, we define an online program as one that requires three or fewer campus visits each year. This way, degree-seekers clearly understand the travel requirements associated with each degree program.
Full-Time vs. Part-Time MSN-to-DNP FNP Programs
Online MSN-to-DNP students can choose to enroll in full-time or part-time degrees. Many schools offer both options, but some institutions only offer one or the other.
Full-time MSN-to-DNP FNP programs typically take 1-2 years to complete and typically require a weekly commitment from students. While part-time programs take longer to complete (often around 2-3 years), learners in these programs take fewer courses each term, making them ideal for working professionals who need more flexibility.
A student who needs to continue working or tending to personal obligations while pursuing their degree should consider enrolling in a part-time program. Learners typically do not enroll in full-time MSN-to-DNP FNP programs while also maintaining full-time employment.
Online MSN-to-DNP FNP Program Curriculum
MSN-to-DNP FNP enrollees can expect to complete a DNP curriculum, along with MSN-level FNP specialization courses. These MSN-level courses focus primarily on advanced clinical practice and training specific to the FNP specialization.
DNP courses prepare graduates in the eight core competencies outlined by the AACN in their Essentials of Doctoral Education for Advanced Nursing Practice, including systems leadership, healthcare policy, and analytical methods for evidence-based practice.
Students can often apply a certain number of credits from their previous master’s program toward either the DNP or post-master’s FNP certificate requirements. For example, many schools allow APRNs to transfer MSN support credits to their MSN-to-DNP FNP program.
Schools often perform a gap analysis to decide which credits students can transfer, along with the MSN-level courses they still need to complete.
MSN-Level FNP Sample Courses
- Advanced Primary Care of Adults: Enrollees explore how to diagnose, treat, and prevent the wide range of common, acute, or chronic health issues that affect adult patients. Some programs may include courses that focus specifically on the elderly or examine women’s health issues. This course often includes a practicum component, where learners perform exams on live models and actual patients to fulfill primary care tasks while under supervision in a medical setting.
- Advanced Primary Care of Infants, Children, and Adolescents: In this course, students explore how to best provide care to children. Along with the unique issues associated with pediatric care, courses typically examine child development, behavioral issues, common genetic conditions, and pediatric pharmacology. This course may also contain a clinical practicum component.
- Disease Prevention and Population Health: Instructors cover the concepts and principles of epidemiology, including the history of diseases, modes of transmission, and different preventative measures. Students also explore population-based health promotion, risk reduction strategies, and the basics of biostatistics.
DNP-Level Sample Courses
- Quality Improvement in Healthcare: Students learn to measure and improve the efficiency, safety, outcomes, and cost-effectiveness of care delivery at both the clinical and systems level. Coursework focuses on risk assessment, process management, and how to analyze data and translate findings to create better models for patient care.
- Health Informatics: Students observe current and emerging technologies and systems for capturing and evaluating healthcare data, along with using this data to improve direct patient care.
- Effective Leadership and Organizational Management: This course examines different methods and theories of leadership to help students better manage healthcare teams, programs, and projects. Course topics typically include interpersonal, interprofessional, and organizational leadership skills; advanced nursing administration; and how to lead change and innovation in the healthcare system.
In addition to DNP coursework, FNP specialty courses, and all clinical practicum requirements, each MSN-to-DNP FNP student must complete a capstone project before earning their doctorate. This original scholarly work represents the culmination of their studies.
Examples of possible DNP projects include a pilot study, practice change initiative, program evaluation, consulting project, or quality improvement project. Upon completion of the project, each learner must typically present an oral defense of their thesis in front of their DNP project team, which may require online students to travel to campus.
Clinical Placements and Practicum Hours
MSN-to-DNP FNP students need to complete the doctoral-level clinical practicum hours, along with the MSN-level FNP clinical practicum hours, to qualify for state licensure and national certification as FNPs.
Most schools require each student to fulfill at least 500 DNP clinical practicum hours as part of their MSN-to-DNP program. As for the FNP clinical component, programs typically require 500-650 specialty hours, and some may require more. At a minimum, each student must complete 1,000 post-BSN clinical hours to qualify for the DNP degree.
Online MSN-to-DNP FNP students typically complete these clinical hours at a healthcare facility in their local area. Some schools help students find and secure their clinical placements, connecting them with an approved medical site and preceptor in their community or a neighboring one.
Other schools require students to find clinical placement sites but may offer assistance in the search. Before enrolling in any DNP program, students should make sure they fully understand the clinical practicum requirements and how the school handles clinical placements.
Once learners complete their MSN-to-DNP program, they can pursue national certification from an accredited certifying body to become a nurse practitioner (NP). Candidates can explore different certification boards and must complete and pass a certifying exam before practicing as an NP.
Certification boards require a candidate to hold a master’s degree in nursing from an accredited institution, along with an unencumbered RN license. To maintain their credentials, professionals should complete the recertification process for their RN licenses and national certifications.
Careers for Family Nurse Practitioners
Graduates of MSN-to-DNP programs can pursue careers as FNPs. These professionals serve as primary and specialty care providers for individuals across the lifespan, treating conditions and even prescribing medication in some states. FNPs are often the first point of contact within healthcare systems for patients.
FNPs commonly work alongside physicians and use doctors’ diagnoses to create effective treatment plans. FNPs can suggest diet changes, exercise options, and changing habits, such as smoking and consuming alcohol.