FAQ: What is the difference between a certified nurse midwife (CNM) and a women’s health nurse practitioner (WHNP)?

Answer: While their responsibilities often overlap, CNMs and WHNPs nevertheless are different. CNMs tend to focus more on providing medical care to women of childbearing age, pregnant women, and newborn babies, while WHNPs focus on providing general and reproductive health care to women across the life span, from menarche on to old age.

Nurse midwives and women’s health nurse practitioners both care for the health of women in a clinical setting. WHNPs and CNMs conduct physical assessments, take medical histories, educate women on effective self-care, and provide guidance and medical treatment to their patients.

Certified nurse midwives perform such services as regular checkups, pap smears, contraception and preconception advising, sexual health education, and family health planning. They also offer medical care and treatment to low-risk pregnant women during pregnancy, labor, and the post-partum period.

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WHNPs perform these services as well, but their role also includes additional responsibilities that are not related to sexual or reproductive health, such as the primary care of post-menopausal women, breast cancer and heart disease screenings, and the treatment of common infections. WHNPs also tend to work more in the areas of health promotion and education than do CNMs.

Nurse Midwifery Programs versus Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner Programs

Due to the overlap between the duties that WHNPs and CNMs perform on a daily basis, many accredited nurse midwifery programs also prepare students to become women’s health nurse practitioners, and vice versa. Such programs, sometimes called CNM/WHNP or NM/WHNP programs, prepare their students to take either the American Midwifery Certification Board’s certification exam for nurse midwives, or the National Certifying Commission’s certification exam for women’s health nurse practitioners. CNM/WHNP programs may be a good option for students who are not sure whether they want to become a nurse midwife or a women’s health nurse practitioner.

However, some accredited WHNP and CNM programs reflect the differences between these two medical professions. For example, accredited WHNP programs may include courses such as contemporary issues in women’s health and primary care of the elderly, while nurse midwifery programs might have in-depth courses on the birthing process and neonatal care. Nevertheless, both accredited WHNP programs and accredited CNM programs cover core topics within advanced practice registered nursing, such as advanced health assessments, advanced human physiology and pathophysiology, and the management of chronic and acute illnesses in women from adolescence to adulthood.