Question: Are there any online acute care nurse practitioner programs?

Answer: Yes. There are many options for RNs who are interested in completing an online acute care nurse practitioner program. Acute care nurse practitioner programs at the MSN, DNP, and post-MSN certificate levels prepare registered nurses to fulfill advanced practice nursing responsibilities and coordinate patient care in acute care settings such as emergency departments, trauma centers, intensive care units, sub-acute/step down units, and surgical departments of hospitals. There are two general types of acute care nurse practitioner programs–adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner (AGACNP) programs, and pediatric acute care nurse practitioner (PACNP) programs. More recently, some nursing schools have begun offering emergency nurse practitioner (ENP) programs.

Acute care nurse practitioners (ACNPs) serve patients in inpatient and intensive outpatient settings who are experiencing severe or complex health conditions. ACNPs are important members of health care teams, as they have the training to evaluate and treat acutely ill and/or injured patients, manage a patient’s care from intake to discharge, and coordinate the care of patients both during their stay in the hospital and even after they transition to outpatient care. Acute care nurse practitioners are also leaders in the health care field, and work at the hospital, community, state, and national levels to promote competent patient care and the advancement of the nursing profession. In general, there are three types of acute care nurse practitioners:

  • Adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioners (AGACNPs) treat severe conditions affecting adults from early adulthood on through old age (ex. heart disease, pulmonary disorders, osteoporosis, cancer, traumatic injury, etc.).
  • Pediatric acute care nurse practitioners (PACNPs) care for patients from infancy through adolescence who are suffering from severe disease and/or injuries (ex. traumatic injury, asthma, cancer, hemophilia, etc.).
  • Emergency Nurse Practitioners (ENPs) work specifically in emergency care, triaging patient intakes, stabilizing patients who are in critical condition, and coordinating the continued care of patients as needed in an intensive care environment.

Acute care nurse practitioner programs prepare registered nurses (RNs) for all of the above responsibilities. In general, there are two types of acute care nurse practitioner programs: Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Programs and Pediatric Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Programs. Some nursing schools also have Emergency Nurse Practitioner Programs, though these are generally in the minority, and are typically comprised of a combination of AGACNP program coursework and courses that concern family and pediatric nursing at the primary and acute care levels.

Types of Online Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Degree Programs

There are three general types of online acute care nurse practitioner degree programs–MSN, DNP, and post-MSN certificate. Below is a description of each of these program types and what candidates they accept. Students should note that all three of these types of online programs require students to be actively licensed as registered nurses. They also typically require students to have graduated from a nursing program accredited by either the CCNE or ACEN.

Online Master of Science in Acute Cate Nursing Programs

There are three main types of online MSN programs that accept RNs with varying educational backgrounds: RN to MSN programs, RN + Non-nursing bachelors to MSN programs, and BSN to MSN programs.

RN to MSN programs are for registered nurses who hold either a diploma in nursing or an associate degree in nursing (ADN), and who wish to earn their MSN without first completing a BSN program. RN to MSN programs require more units and time than traditional BSN to MSN programs, but generally take less time than it would take to complete a BSN and an MSN separately. RN to MSN programs therefore tend to be a good option for ADN (or nursing diploma) recipients who wish to earn their MSN as efficiently as possible. Some RN to MSN programs grant students a BSN in addition to the MSN, while others only grant an MSN.

Some RN to MSN programs require RNs to have completed a non-nursing bachelor’s degree in addition to their ADN. These programs are sometimes referred to as RN BA/BS to MSN programs or RN + Non-nursing bachelors to MSN programs. Typically students complete a bridge curriculum before proceeding to the MSN core and specialty courses.

Finally, BSN to MSN programs are for RNs who hold a Bachelor of Science in Nursing and want to pursue an MSN. These programs are sometimes referred to as traditional MSN programs and are by far the most common.

Online Doctor of Nursing Practice Programs

In general, there are three types of DNP programs that are relevant to students interested in becoming acute care nurse practitioners: BSN to DNP programs, MSN to DNP programs with a new or second specialty, and RN to DNP programs.

BSN to DNP programs are for RNs who hold a BSN and who wish to earn a DNP while pursuing an acute care nurse practitioner specialty. These programs combine MSN level coursework including NP specialty courses and practicums with DNP level curricula. While a DNP is not currently required to become licensed as an APRN, there has been a push to make the DNP the entry-level requirement for nurse practitioners.

MSN to DNP programs with an acute care specialty are for RNs who already possess a Master of Science in Nursing (e.g. Clinical Nurse Leader, different NP specialty) and want to subsequently earn a DNP while adding a new clinical specialty. These programs are basically the combination of a post-MSN certificate program with a post-MSN DNP program. Some of these programs will accept RNs who have completed any type of MSN program, while others require students to already be licensed as an APRN (these are for students who want to add a second specialty while pursuing their DNP).

While RN to DNP programs exist, they are not very common and typically require RNs to have completed both an ADN and a non-nursing bachelor’s degree. RN to DNP programs may also have more rigorous professional requirements for candidates, due to the fact that applicants must illustrate that they are prepared for the academic and clinical rigor of the program.

Online Post-MSN Certificate Programs

Post-MSN certificate programs are for RNs who hold an MSN in a field other than acute or emergency nursing care, and who would like to receive additional training and certification in one of these fields. Some post-MSN certificate programs accept RNs who have completed any type of MSN program (e.g Clinical Nurse Leader, Nursing Administration), while others require students to be licensed as an APRN (i.e. for students who wish to add a second specialization). Programs that accept any MSN trained RN may require students to have completed specific courses like Advanced Health Assessment or Advanced Pharmacology for admission.

Curriculum Details for Online Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Programs

The curricula for online AGACNP programs and online PACNP programs are similar in that they train nurses to stabilize, treat, and coordinate the care of patients suffering from complex and severe and/or life-threatening diseases and conditions. These programs also train RNs to engage in advanced nursing research, and include courses on nursing leadership and administration, health care systems improvement, and health care policy and advocacy. The core curriculum tends to be similar across AGACNP and PACNP programs, with the main differences being the concentration courses that students take later in their program. Some acute care nurse practitioner programs allow students to specialize even further and select an academic focus in a particular health condition, such as pediatric acute cardiovascular care or geriatric oncology. Emergency NP graduate programs may also place a special emphasis on the care of patients in emergency, trauma, and surgical settings.

Core Classes in Online Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Programs

Students of online acute care nurse practitioner programs will generally complete a set of core graduate-level nursing classes prior to progressing to courses that focus on their specialization. These classes cover fundamental advanced practice nursing topics, such as advanced human physiology, health care policy, nursing research methods, and evidence-based practice. Below are several examples of the classes that typically comprise the core component of online acute care nurse practitioner programs.

  • Advanced Human Physiology and Pathophysiology: The anatomy and physiology of each organ system in the human body, and discussion of the different diseases and conditions that may affect these systems across the lifespan. How normal organ systems function and interact to maintain homeostasis, and the pathophysiological disease process, and how to evaluate disease progress and develop treatment plans for patients across the lifespan.
  • Evidence-Based Practice: The role of nursing research, theory, and clinical findings in the development of sound health care plans. How to integrate the latest clinical research findings into improvements in patient care at the individual and health care systems levels.
  • Advanced Pharmacotherapeutics: The different drug types and how they interact with the human body at the organ systems, tissue, and cellular levels. How to develop a drug treatment plan for patients, monitor the effects of medications over time, and adjust pharmacological plans accordingly.
  • Fundamentals of Nursing Research: Key theoretical and clinical topics in nursing science, and how to investigate clinical questions in an academic environment. The fundamentals of the research process, and how to record, interpret, and discuss research findings with colleagues.
  • Health Care Policy: How national, state, and local laws affect the health of communities and individuals. The APRN’s role in health policy and patient advocacy, and how nurses can analyze existing laws and fight for improvements in legislation that will lead to better health outcomes for patients.
  • Population Health Nursing: The use of community assessment and epidemiological methods to evaluate the health of populations and promote preventative care. Special emphasis on vulnerable populations and how environmental factors impact community health. How to develop health improvement programs in partnership other health care organizations and other groups at the community level.
  • Nursing Leadership and Health Care Systems Improvement: The skills nurses require to lead teams of healthcare professionals in a medical setting, and manage workflows and systems of care in a hospital setting. How to identify issues in the workplace that hinder efficient or effective patient care, and how to address these issues through programs, staff training, and other measures.

Concentration Courses in Online AGACNP Programs

Classes that are specific to adult-gerontology acute care typically focus on critical health conditions that affect adults from young adulthood through old age. Emphasis is also placed on the aging process, health risks facing patients at different stages in their adult lives, and the importance of lifestyle changes in preventing serious disease.

  • Advanced Health Assessment and Diagnostic Reasoning for Adult/Gerontology Populations: How to conduct a thorough health assessment of adult and geriatric patients, and how to use diagnostic reasoning to develop and monitor medical care plans according to patients’ medical history and current health status.
  • Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Medicine and Patient Management: Health considerations and challenges that are specific to adult and geriatric patients, and how the nurse practitioner can treat both chronic and acute conditions facing this patient population. Preventative care concepts and how to counsel and support older patients in preventing disease and complications of existing conditions.
  • Advanced Clinical Care Concepts in Oncology: The different types of cancers, including reproductive, pulmonary, skin, stomach, and colon cancers, and how to diagnose and treat them. How to support patients and their families during cancer treatment. Identifying risk factors for cancer in patients given their medical history, lifestyle, and genetics, and counsel patients on preventative care measures.
  • Advanced Clinical Care Concepts in Pulmonary Disease: The different types of pulmonary diseases affecting adult patient populations, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, lung infections, and pulmonary fibrosis, and how to identify and treat them. How to counsel patients in the prevention and management of pulmonary conditions.
  • Advanced Clinical Care Concepts in Cardiovascular Conditions: Cardiovascular conditions that affect adult and geriatric populations, such as atherosclerosis, heart valve problems, stroke, and heart arrhythmias, and how to manage them. How to counsel patients in the prevention of cardiovascular conditions through lifestyle changes.

Concentration Courses in Online PACNP Programs

Classes specific to pediatric acute care focus on the severe congenital and acquired conditions that may affect patients ranging in age from infancy to adolescence. Emphasis is placed on caring for patients in the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU), as well as other intensive care settings.

  • Advanced Health Assessment and Diagnostic Reasoning for Pediatric Populations: How to conduct a thorough health assessment for pediatric patients ranging in age from infancy to adolescence. How to use diagnostic reasoning to develop and monitor medical care plans according to patients’ medical history and current health status.
  • Childhood Development and Pediatric Acute Care: Healthy childhood development and common deviations from this norm. Health considerations and challenges specific to pediatric patient populations, and how nurse practitioners can identify and address health issues in patients.
  • Pediatric Oncology: The different types of cancers affecting pediatric populations, and how to diagnose them. How to develop a cancer treatment plan in collaboration with physicians, medical staff, and patients’ families. Supporting patients and families during the treatment process.
  • Pediatric Pulmonary and Cardiovascular Conditions: Pulmonary and cardiovascular conditions affecting pediatric patients ranging in age from infancy to adolescence, including asthma, bronchitis, heart arrhythmias, and congenital lung and heart disorders. How to identify and treat these disorders, educate patients and their families in the management of these conditions, and provide patient and family support.

Concentration Courses for ENP Programs

Emergency nurse practitioner programs are often comprised of a combination of AGACNP courses, family nursing classes, and courses that focus specifically on caring for patients across the lifespan in emergency, trauma, surgical, and other critical care settings.

  • Core Competencies of Family Primary Care Nursing: The core concepts of family primary care nursing, including advanced health assessments of patients across the lifespan, patient education and preventative care measures, and the support of patients within the context of the family unit. Human development from infancy through old age, and the different health challenges that people encounter at different stages of their life.
  • The Primary Nursing Care of the Infant, Child, and Adolescent: Child development from infancy through adolescence, and the health challenges children face as they mature. How to prevent, diagnose, and address chronic and acute conditions affecting the pediatric patient population.
  • Women’s Health Nursing: Women’s reproductive development throughout the lifespan, and the mild to severe reproductive health conditions that women may encounter as they age. How nurse practitioners can diagnose and address these conditions, and how they can support patients in preventing, identifying, and treating reproductive health problems.
  • Patient Care in Emergency, Trauma, and Surgical Settings: How to stabilize patients suffering from traumatic injury or critical conditions in need of intensive care or surgery. How to support physicians and other members of the medical care team in the monitoring and care of patients undergoing surgical procedures.

Clinical Practicums for Online Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Programs

Due to the importance that is placed on the practical application of nursing concepts learned in class, online acute care nurse practitioner programs have clinical hours requirements that are equivalent to those of on-campus programs. Even programs with 100% online instruction mandate that students work directly with patients in a real medical environment to gain the necessary experience as an advanced practice provider. The process of securing clinical placement sites and supervisors varies by program, with some programs matching students to preceptors and clinical locations, and others requiring students to reach out to and secure prospective preceptors independently.

To become certified as acute care nurse practitioners in adult-gerontology, pediatric, or emergency care, registered nurses must fulfill a minimum number of clinical hours in relevant medical environments (ex. intensive care departments, surgical departments, and emergency rooms). The number of clinical practicum hours required for certification differs by specialization and by the certifying body, but in general, the following minimum practicum hour requirements hold:

  • Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner: At least 500 clinical practicum hours in acute care settings for certification through the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC).
  • Pediatric Acute Care Nurse Practitioner: At least 500 clinical practicum hours in pediatric acute care settings for certification through the Pediatric Nursing Certification Board.
  • Emergency Care Nurse Practitioner: Requirements for certification through the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Program (AANPCP) or the ANCC vary, and there are multiple certifications paths available through either organization. However, in general applicants must apply 2,000 hours of advanced professional experience in emergency care settings to their application for certification. Part of these professional hours requirements can be fulfilled through a graduate or post-graduate emergency care nursing program.

Depending on the specialization, acute care nurse practitioner programs may require students to complete between 500 to 1000 clinical practicum hours in a variety of critical or intensive care settings. (Students in DNP programs are required to complete a minimum of 1000 clinical hours in order to earn their DNP.) Clinical practicum hours are typically divided across several rotations that students complete throughout their enrollment in the program. Each rotation may have a particular focus, requiring students to secure practicums in different acute care environments, such as the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU), the emergency department, trauma units, oncology departments, or surgical units. However, some programs may allow students to work in the same medical setting with the same supervisor for multiple clinical rotations. When completing their practicums, students generally have to attend a corresponding seminar, in which they discuss their practicum experiences with peers and course instructors.

For more information about graduate nursing school clinical practicums, please refer to our Graduate Nursing Student’s Guide to Clinical Placements.