What Is a DNP Degree? The Future of Advanced Nursing

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A nurse smiling and holding a tablet in a conference room with a doctor and a shallow depth of field.The Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree was initially promoted as a way for advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) to earn the clinical expertise that goes into higher-level nursing. Since the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) formally endorsed making the DNP the benchmark academic requirement for APRNs in 2004, thousands of APRNs have earned a DNP degree, taking advanced roles in hospitals, medical centers and private practice.

AACN isn’t alone in endorsing the DNP as the benchmark academic requirement. The National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties (NONPF), the National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists (NACNS) and the American Association of Nurse Anesthesiology (AANA), support the DNP for entry-level practice to advanced nursing. The AANA has also officially made earning a doctorate necessary to enter the field as a nurse anesthetist by 2025, although the organization doesn’t specify whether this degree needs to be a DNP.

Because of these endorsements — and in some cases, future requirements — the DNP degree has become much sought after by APRNs seeking to advance their careers in healthcare systems, clinical practice and healthcare policy. To earn the degree, either through a traditional classroom setting or through an online DNP program, APRNs must adhere to standardized competencies, understand what a DNP degree is and fulfill the entry requirements.

What Is a DNP Degree in Nursing?

In many respects, the DNP degree is what makes nurses effective managers. DNP coursework trains advanced practice nurses in the skills needed to work as clinical healthcare leaders. The increasing complexities in the healthcare system — from the growing concerns about patient safety to the increase in chronic conditions — make practice expertise essential to population health.

Unlike a Ph.D., which is primarily research or an academic degree, a DNP is a degree built around practice. This practice is a little different from other practice-driven degrees. Rather than focusing on direct patient care, those with the degree commonly land in positions that build and direct healthcare systems and their various components. These components can include administration, health policy formation, nurse management and health informatics systems.

While a DNP doesn’t put individuals front and center with patients, it does allow people to play a sizable role in shaping patient care. The roles associated with DNP degree holders typically deal with concepts that impact care delivery effectiveness and efficiency. Ultimately, this can allow for patient care improvements, which can, in turn, carry the potential to improve patient outcomes.

Advanced Practice Nursing

In educating APRNs about earning a DNP degree, nursing organizations identified observable, realistic and measurable competencies as a framework for success in the educational program, according to the AACN. The organization outlined eight domains that are expected of DNP graduates entering into advanced practice nursing:

1. Patient Care

In the course of their work, APRNs are expected to design, deliver, manage and evaluate comprehensive and broad patient care. Doctoral-level competencies for APRNs include gathering and interpreting patient and clinical data to make a diagnosis in patients with multiple comorbidities, including developing therapeutic interventions and crafting education and counseling plans.

2. Knowledge of Practice

DNP-educated APRNs should be able to take scientific knowledge from a variety of sources and translate the information into practice. The work should include applying theoretical, scientific and evidence-based concepts to clinical practice.

3. Practice-Based Learning and Improvement

APRN practice also includes the ability to critically self-evaluate and continually improve patient care based on lifelong learning. To reach this goal, APRNs should routinely reflect on their practice and seek feedback from other professionals and the patient population.

4. Interpersonal and Communication Skills

Working as a DNP-educated APRN also includes demonstrating skills to effectively communicate with patients, their families and other care providers across varied socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, particularly during complex and challenging situations.

5. Professionalism

APRN work at the doctoral level includes acting professionally with strict adherence to ethical principles. Such behavior includes delivering compassionate care that follows ethical and moral guidelines in complex healthcare situations.

6. Systems-Based Practice

As DNP-educated leaders, APRNs must demonstrate leadership that improves healthcare systems and outcomes on a micro and macro level. Improvements can include stewardship of financial resources for the delivery of quality care and policy changes to shape and optimize access to healthcare.

7. Interprofessional Collaboration

As members of interprofessional teams, APRNs should be able to utilize safe, effective and collaborative patient-centered care that integrates the patient’s preferences.

8. Personal and Professional Development

In many ways, a DNP degree is what helps move registered nurses (RNs) into advanced practice nursing. It also requires APRNs to commit to lifelong learning and development to advance their professional and personal growth. This type of development can be achieved by incorporating health and stress-relief strategies into everyday life.

The Future of the DNP Degree

Today, DNP-educated RNs fill roles across the spectrum of advanced practice as family nurse practitioners (FNPs), clinical managers, nurse educators, nursing school administrators and chief nursing officers (CNOs). The DNP-educated nurse’s role continues to develop and expand as nursing becomes more complex.

These complexities stem from numerous origin points. The increasing influx of tech-driven innovations,  such as electronic health records (EHRs) and telehealth systems, have become increasingly vital parts of any effective healthcare delivery strategy. At the same time, these components must seamlessly integrate into healthcare strategy for not only the sake of patient care but also informational security. Leaders with a DNP degree can be well suited to provide the guidance needed to ensure such secure effectiveness.

The business of healthcare is also changing, as emerging concepts like value-driven healthcare and the ever-changing shift of regulatory compliance make it critical for a facility to operate in a manner that’s economically and legally beneficial for the patient and facility alike. A DNP holder’s ability to apply knowledge and skills to this part of care delivery can ensure that the most vital part — delivering patient care — remains consistent and effective.

Finally, it’s predicted that the human element of healthcare will continue to evolve. Issues such as projected physician shortages and an aging population will offer dramatic challenges to patient care and the type of care needed to treat patients. The future of healthcare will require the expertise of a nurse leader who can confidently guide a facility toward its care delivery goals despite these challenges. A DNP degree can be a big help in cultivating individuals into people who can provide this kind of leadership.

A Critical Degree for Healthcare’s Future

As the push to make the DNP degree standard for work as an APRN continues, one thing is clear: In the face of a healthcare industry that’ll likely continue to experience dramatic changes in the years to come, nurse leaders need to step up and provide the guidance, vision and leadership to face these changes head-on so that the quality of patient care never wavers. A DNP is what can place an individual into prime position to be that type of leader.

Earning a DNP through Duquesne University’s online DNP program can help prepare you to assuredly lead others through the healthcare industry’s constant changes. The curriculum is designed to cultivate your knowledge and skill set to an expert level, giving you the confidence to handle any change in healthcare as it arises. Learn how Duquesne University can help you achieve your career goals.

Recommended Readings

Importance of Networking for DNP-Educated Nurses

Transparency in Nursing Leadership and Healthcare

Top Concerns for Nurse Leaders


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American Association of Colleges of Nursing, Common Advanced Practice Registered Nurse Doctoral-Level Competencies

American Association of Colleges of Nursing, DNP Fact Sheet

Association of American Medical Colleges, AAMC Report Reinforces Mounting Physician Shortage

Business Insider, “The Aging US Population Is Creating Many Problems – Especially Regarding Elderly Healthcare Issues”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Trends in Use of Telehealth Among Health Centers During the COVID-19 Pandemic, United States, June 26 – November 6, 2020”

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U.S. Census Bureau, Older Population and Aging