What Is a DNP?

Image of a stethoscope over a heart.

Uncertainty and complications face the healthcare system in the United States. A look at ethical issues in healthcare — such as balancing the quality of care with efficiency, improving the access of care and building a strong workforce — reveal areas where change is needed.

The Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree was developed to respond to these concerns. “The changing demands of this nation’s complex healthcare environment require the highest level of scientific knowledge and practice expertise to assure quality patient outcomes,” according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN). “The Institute of Medicine, Joint Commission, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and other authorities have called for reconceptualizing educational programs that prepare today’s health professionals.”

DNP programs have become the standard for nurses who want a terminal degree in nursing practice.

Understanding the DNP Degree

A DNP degree is the highest level of academic preparation for clinical nursing practice. The degree prepares a nurse for advanced practice and the application of research into practice.

The DNP is an alternative to research-focused doctoral programs. Doctoral degrees like the Doctor or Philosophy (PhD) prepare nurses to become nurse scientists and researchers who generate new knowledge. DNP-prepared nurses can fully implement the science developed by nurse researchers who have a PhD or another research-focused nursing doctorate.

Commonly, DNP programs are classified as post-baccalaureate DNPs and post-master’s DNPs. A post-baccalaureate DNP is designed for registered nurses with a bachelor’s degree, while a post-master’s DNP is for master’s-prepared and licensed advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs). Typically, a post-baccalaureate DNP can be earned in three or four years full time, and a post-master’s DNP can be earned in one or two years full time. Many DNP programs have part-time options for nurses who work as they advance their education.

DNP Curriculum

A strong focus of DNP programs is leadership. Students learn theoretical foundations to leading healthcare practitioners in healthcare systems. For instance, courses in ethics, policy, advocacy and quality improvement prepare nurses to institute change for the well-being of patients and the community.

Evidence-based courses concentrate on helping nurses apply what they learn in practice. Courses include applied statistics and translational research, or research that “translates” findings in fundamental research into medical practice to produce positive health outcomes.

The AACN has established eight essentials of doctoral education for advanced nursing practice.

  1. Scientific Underpinnings for Practice
  2. Organizational and Systems Leadership for Quality Improvement and Systems Thinking
  3. Clinical Scholarship and Analytical Methods for Evidence-Based Practice
  4. Information Systems/Technology and Patient Care Technology for the Improvement and Transformation of Health Care
  5. Health Care Policy for Advocacy in Health Care
  6. Interprofessional Collaboration for Improving Patient and Population Health Outcomes
  7. Clinical Prevention and Population Health for Improving the Nation’s Health
  8. Advanced Nursing Practice

Career Prospects

Nursing leaders who earn their DNP can explore opportunities to improve the quality of clinical patient care, revamp healthcare education and training or advocate for and develop new healthcare policy. Graduates can pursue advancement in the following careers.

Clinical Nurse Specialist

Diagnose and treat illness in an area of expertise. Common specialty areas include patients and their families, nurse management and administration.

Nurse Practitioner

Deliver healthcare service for patients in a wide range of outpatient and inpatient settings. Focus is primarily on health promotion and maintenance, disease prevention and diagnosing and managing acute and chronic illnesses.

Nurse Anesthetist

Provide for patients’ anesthesia needs before, during and after surgery or the delivery of a baby. Includes every type of practice setting and every type of operation or procedure.

Nurse Midwife

Assist with births as well as provide care from pre-conception through post-partum period. Also provide gynecological services including routine care, reproductive healthcare or peri-/post-menopausal care.

Advancing the Quality and Access of Healthcare

Alvernia University offers a Post-Master’s DNP Clinical Leadership program for APRNs seeking a practice doctorate to advance their careers to the highest levels in nursing. The online DNP takes place in a flexible and convenient online environment, allowing nurses the ability to reach their goals while maintaining their current work and personal schedules.