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

Answer: Yes. There are online MSN, DNP, and post-MSN certificate programs that train RNs to become primary care nurse practitioners. Students of online primary care nurse practitioner programs tend to focus on one patient population during their program: adult-gerontology patients, pediatric patients, families (i.e. patients across the lifespan within the family unit), or women. In addition to classes that focus on their patient population of choice, students of primary care nurse practitioner programs receive training in advanced health assessments, preventative care, treatment of mild to moderate conditions, and patient education.

Advanced practice primary care nursing involves the ongoing care of patients with a focus on health checkups, patient education, chronic condition management, and preventative care. There are several options available for RNs who are interested in becoming primary care nurse practitioners, and who wish to enroll in an online program. Students of primary care NP programs typically choose one of the four concentrations below:

  • Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner (AGPCNP) Programs: AGPCNP programs train students to care for adult patients from adolescence on through geriatric age. These programs include coursework in advanced health assessments and diagnostic screenings for adult-onset conditions, management and prevention of chronic diseases, and care coordination for patients in outpatient settings.
  • Pediatric Primary Care Nurse Practitioner (PPCNP) Programs: PPCNP programs prepare students to care for pediatric patients from infancy through adolescence, with a focus on preventative care measures such as immunizations, health screenings, patient and family education, and the prevention and management of pediatric conditions such as asthma, diabetes, and allergies.
  • Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) Programs: FNP programs prepare students to provide primary care services to patients across the lifespan, from infancy through old age, with a special focus on caring for patients within the context of the family unit. Students of these programs learn how to conduct advanced health assessments, administer immunizations, care for mild to moderate chronic conditions that patients may encounter throughout their development, and educate patients on healthy lifestyles and preventative care measures.
  • Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner (WHNP) Programs: WHNP programs prepare students to care for the reproductive health of female patients from early adolescence through old age. They conduct gynecological exams and overall physical health assessments, educate patients on family planning and reproductive health issues, provide birth control services (including IUD and Nexplanon insertions), and screen for and help to treat reproductive health problems such as endometriosis, STIs, polycystic ovarian syndrome, and cervical cancer.

While each of these program types focuses on a different population, all types of primary care nurse practitioner programs include courses that cover primary care methods and principles such as advanced health assessment, advanced human physiology and pathophysiology, and advanced pharmacology. For more information about the course content of online primary care nurse practitioner programs, please refer to the sections below.

Types of Online Primary Care Nurse Practitioner Programs

Online primary care nurse practitioner programs are available at the MSN, DNP, and post-graduate certificate levels. Below is a description of each of these types of degree programs and their general admission requirements. Prospective applicants to these programs should note that all three types of online primary care nurse practitioner programs require candidates to hold an active registered nurse license in their state of residence. In general, applicants must also have completed a nursing program that has been accredited by either the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) or the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN).

Online Master of Science in Nursing Programs in Primary Care

MSN programs in advanced practice primary nursing care are available for RNs of differing educational backgrounds. There are three types of MSN programs: BSN to MSN programs, RN to MSN programs, and RN + Non-Nursing Bachelor’s to MSN programs.

BSN to MSN programs, also commonly known as traditional MSN programs, are for RNs who have a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from a program that has been accredited by the CCNE or ACEN. BSN to MSN programs the most common type of MSN program.

RN to MSN primary care nurse practitioner programs are for RNs who have either an associate degree in nursing (ADN) from a CCNE or ACEN-accredited program or a diploma in nursing program, and who wish to earn their MSN degree without first earning their BSN through a separate program. RN to MSN programs generally require more time and units than traditional BSN to MSN programs, due to the additional bachelors-level coursework that students must complete. However, these programs tend to take less time than it would require to complete a BSN and an MSN program separately. While some RN to MSN programs award students with both a BSN (i.e what is known as a stop-out option) and an MSN, other programs only award an MSN.

Another type of RN to MSN program is the RN + Non-Nursing Bachelor’s to MSN program (sometimes referred to as a bridge program), which require students to have completed a non-nursing bachelor’s degree in addition to their ADN (or diploma in nursing). These programs generally require students to complete a number of bridge courses before proceeding to the MSN core curriculum and specialty courses. These programs can save students who already hold a non-nursing bachelor’s degree some time and units by waiving certain general education requirements that they already completed, and for which they might otherwise have been required to complete in a traditional RN to MSN program.

Online Doctor of Nursing Practice Programs in Primary Care

Online MSN to DNP programs with a new or second specialty, BSN to DNP programs, and RN to DNP programs are three of the main options for students interested in preparing at the doctorate level to become primary care nurse practitioners.

MSN to DNP programs with primary care specialties, are for RNs who already hold a Master of Science in Nursing, and who wish to earn their DNP while training to work in primary care nursing for a specific population. These programs are a combination of DNP courses with MSN level nurse practitioner specialty courses. They are available for students who want to earn their first APRN certification or a second APRN certification in a different specialty. These are different from traditional MSN to DNP programs that only offer the DNP curriculum.

BSN to DNP programs are for RNs who wish to earn their DNP with a concentration in primary care nursing for a specific patient population. These programs are essentially the combination of a BSN to MSN program and an MSN to DNP program. Prospective students of online primary care nurse practitioner programs should note that the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) has recommended that the new academic entry-level requirement for nurse practitioners be the DNP rather than the MSN. However, at present, no set date has been established for when this new requirement will be implemented and new nurse practitioners will need to hold a DNP in order to practice.

RN to DNP programs, while rare, allow RNs holding an ADN to earn their DNP through an accelerated program. The majority of these programs require students to have completed a non-nursing bachelor’s degree in addition to their ADN. These programs tend to have rigorous admission requirements, as students must demonstrate that they are prepared for the advanced academic and clinical work involved in the program.

Online Post-MSN Graduate Certificate Programs

Online post-MSN certificate programs in advanced primary nursing care are for RNs who hold an MSN or a DNP and who wish to obtain additional training and certification in a new APRN specialty. Some post-graduate primary care nurse practitioner programs require applicants to have earned their MSN in a clinical specialty, while other post-MSN programs allow candidates to hold an MSN in any specialty, including non-clinical concentrations such as nursing leadership or education. Post-graduate certificate programs that accept applicants who have earned any type of MSN may require students to complete courses in Advanced Health Assessment, Human Physiology, and Pharmacology, if they did not complete them during their first MSN program.

Curriculum Details for Online Primary Care Nurse Practitioner Programs

As mentioned previously, primary care nurse practitioner programs in adult-gerontology, pediatric, family, and women’s health nursing tend to have the same core courses that train students in advanced clinical skills, such as health assessments, diagnostic reasoning, advanced human physiology and pathophysiology, and pharmacology. Below are descriptions of courses that are typically common to all types of primary care nurse practitioner programs:

  • Advanced Health Assessment: How to complete a thorough medical history and physical examination, bringing together patients’ biological, psychological, cultural, and social circumstances to create an accurate and comprehensive understanding of their health.
  • Advanced Human Physiology and Pathophysiology: How the human body functions and develops at the organ systems, organ, tissue, cellular, and molecular levels. How to diagnose common health conditions affecting different organ systems, and understand their origins and development.
  • Advanced Pharmacology: The different classes of drugs and their effect on the body at the organ, organ systems, tissue, cellular, and molecular levels. How to determine proper dosages for different patients and conditions, and how to measure patient responses to different drugs based on their physiology, age, and metabolism.
  • Clinical Reasoning and Decision Making: How to interpret findings from patient physical assessments and medical histories to make diagnoses, and develop treatment plans that address patient needs.
  • Nursing Research: The principles of nursing research, the research process, and how to apply research findings to nursing practice. The different types of qualitative and quantitative research methods, and how they are relevant to different types of medical and nursing studies.
  • Health Policy and Advocacy: The history and current landscape of health care politics, and how they impact patients’ access to and quality of care. How nurses and nursing students can get involved at the grassroots, state, and national levels in advocating for patient care and the advancement of the nursing profession.

Concentration Courses in Online Primary Care Nurse Practitioner Programs:

Concentration courses for online primary care nurse practitioner programs vary depending on a student’s desired population focus. Below are descriptions of the courses that are common to different types of online primary care nurse practitioner programs.

Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Programs

  • Advanced Practice Primary Care Nursing for the Adolescent and Adult Patient: Health considerations and challenges that patients ranging in age from adolescent to middle aged adult tend to encounter, and how to address them through a combination of patient education, preventative care, and treatment, if applicable. Important diagnostic screenings and immunizations that patients in this age group should receive, and how to develop a comprehensive and ongoing care plan that supports patients’ physical and mental health.
  • Advanced Practice Primary Care Nursing for the Geriatric Patient: The common chronic and acute health issues that geriatric patients tend to encounter, and how to address them in primary care environments through outpatient treatment measures, patient counseling, and monitoring of chronic conditions.
  • Pediatric Primary Care Programs

    • Pediatric Pathophysiology: The pathogenesis of conditions that commonly affect children ranging in age from infancy through early adolescence, and how to manage them through a combination of medical treatments, patient and family education, and environmental or lifestyle changes.
    • Advanced Practice Primary Care for Pediatric Patients: Important concepts in child wellness care, including child growth and development from infancy through early adolescence, and the impact of environment, genetics, family, and social factors on children’s physical and mental health. How to support the health of patients in collaboration with their families through preventative care, treatments, and education.
    • Family Nursing Programs

      • Diagnosis and Management of Illness in Families: Important concepts in the primary care of all members of a family unit, from infants to children and adults. The pathogenesis of common cardiovascular, respiratory, gastrointestinal, and endocrine illnesses and conditions across the lifespan, and how to diagnose and manage these conditions within the context of the family unit.
      • Advanced Practice Primary Care for Pediatric Patients: The core principles of child wellness care, including child development from infancy through adolescence, and the impact of environmental, familial, genetic, and social factors on children’s overall health. How to combine preventative care, patient education, and treatments as necessary to support the health of children and their families.
      • Advanced Practice Primary Care Nursing for the Adult and Geriatric Patient: The health considerations and challenges facing adults ranging in age from young adulthood to geriatric age, and how to support patients in the prevention and/or management of these medical issues. How to develop a comprehensive and continuous health care plan that accounts for patients’ physical and mental health needs.

      Women’s Health Programs

      • Well Women Care and Gynecology: Important concepts and methods in the reproductive care of women and adolescent girls, including conducting well women exams, advising patients on family planning, providing birth control options, and educating patients on caring for their reproductive health.
      • Obstetrical Care of the Childbearing Woman: How to advise and support women before, during, and after pregnancy through a health care plan that entails routine health checkups, diagnostic screenings for the mother and fetus, and physical and emotional support and education about the birthing process.
      • Primary Care of the Post-Menopausal Woman: How to assess and support the health of post-menopausal and elderly women, and detect and treat common health conditions that this demographic encounters. How to improve patients’ quality of life through a combination of patient education, preventative care, treatments for mild to moderate health complaints, and referrals to specialists as needed.

      Clinical Practicums for Online Primary Care Nurse Practitioner Programs

      To become certified as a primary care nurse practitioner, registered nurses must fulfill a minimum number of clinical hours in medical environments that are relevant to their population focus. The number of clinical practicum hours required for students to receive national certification in their desired specialty varies; for more information about certification requirements for different types of primary care nurse practitioners, please refer to our APRN Certification FAQ.

      Online primary care nurse practitioner programs, even those with 100% online instruction, have clinical hours requirements that are equivalent to those of on-campus programs. While some programs match students to preceptors and clinical locations, others require students to reach out to and secure prospective preceptors independently, which may require advance planning on the students’ part in order to find a preceptor that can supervise them for a specific term.

      Depending on their specialization, students of online primary care nurse practitioner programs must complete between 500 to 1000 clinical practicum hours in a variety medical settings. (Students in DNP programs are required to complete a minimum of 1000 clinical hours in order to earn their DNP.) Practicum hours are generally divided across several clinical rotations that students complete throughout their time in the program.

      Each rotation may have a particular focus, requiring students to secure practicums in different primary care environments, particularly if the student’s program concentration is broad. For example, family nurse practitioner students must complete their clinical practicums in a variety of primary care environments that allow them to work with patients across the lifespan, and therefore may need to secure practicum settings in pediatric primary care, geriatric care, and adult health. On the other hand, a more focused program, such as a women’s health nurse practitioner program, may only require students to complete clinical practicums in obstetrical and gynecological settings. When completing their practicums, students typically have a corresponding seminar in which they discuss their experiences in practicum 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.