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What Is a DNP and Its Significance in Nursing?

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A Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) is among the highest nursing degrees you can earn and can lead to more career opportunities and improved healthcare outcomes. 

Nursing has many acronyms to remember, and DNP is one of them. The DNP is a significant milestone in nursing education and is considered a high point of academic achievement. 

Studying for a DNP helps nurses gain many skills that can help them advance in their fields with multiple career paths available. Let’s look at what is involved in obtaining this degree and its role in nursing.

What is a DNP in nursing?

The DNP degree was designed to prepare advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) for leadership roles in clinical practice. While this was the original intent, only 14% of APRNs have earned a DNP, as of 2019 data. The majority have a master’s as their highest level of education. Roles that APRNs often have include:

  • Nurse practitioners (NP)
  • Certified nurse-midwives (CNM)
  • Certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNA)
  • Clinical nurse specialists (CNS)

A DNP in nursing builds on previous knowledge with advanced courses, including:

  • Quality improvement
  • Evidence-based practice
  • Systems leadership
  • Health policy
  • Epidemiology
  • Independent practice

Nurses can obtain a DNP following a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) or a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). The BSN-to-DNP programs usually take three to four years of full-time course work, while MSN-to-DNP programs generally take one to two years to complete. 

DNP education culminates in a final project demonstrating student’s mastery of their education and expertise. There is no specific DNP certification exam, but there are certification exams for APRNs. 

There are currently 426 DNP programs nationwide, with many additional programs in the planning stages. Student enrollment continues to climb as employers recognize the value of DNP-prepared nurses. 

There are some critical components of a DNP in nursing. This degree:

  • Is intended for nurses seeking an advanced degree that is more directly related to nursing practice
  • Serves as an alternative to research-focused doctoral programs
  • Prepares nurses to fill high-level roles, such as nursing leadership, management, or administration 
  • Focuses on translating research into practice
  • Aims to drive improvement in patient and population outcomes

Kristin Gianelis, DNP, APRN, ANP-BC, WHNP-BC, a nurse faculty member in Frontier Nursing University’s DNP program summarized the true DNP meaning. 

“The DNP is truly a practice-focused doctorate,” she said. “The DNP degree is about translating research into clinical practice to improve individual patient outcomes and overall population health.”

Potential career paths for a nurse with a DNP

Acquiring this advanced degree opens the door to diverse career paths. Nursing practice with a DNP includes both direct patient care as APRNs and nurses in different bedside settings or organizational roles such as healthcare policy and informatics.

“Quite a few DNPs continue working in a clinical setting but bring their new knowledge and skills into this setting, elevating practice and care for their patients,” Gianelis shared.

According to Gianelis, additional career paths for nurses with DNPs include:

  • Starting their own practices, finding unique ways to serve the healthcare needs of their communities
  • Leadership positions — from clinical leadership roles to nurse executive positions
  • Serving at the state and national levels to influence and advocate for healthcare policy changes 
  • Nursing higher education 

A DNP degree also develops nursing skills that can be applied to almost any APRN role. Gianelis shared a few examples of these skills, including:

  • Leadership
  • Quality improvement
  • Advanced clinical reasoning and critical thinking
  • Data management skills 
  • Research literacy
  • Nursing scholarship
  • Professionalism
  • Health policy
  • Advocacy

There is a potential increase in salary and career advancement with a DNP. According to Wiley University Services, a nurse with a DNP earns an average of $6,000 more per year than an MSN-prepared nurse. They also earn $42,000 more on average than a BSN-prepared nurse.

"Although most DNPs will find that the degree alone will not net an immediate change in their salary, a DNP degree provides greater access to higher-level career tracks in nursing,” Gianelis said. “The DNP degree might be your 'leg up' for getting a highly coveted job."

There are many reasons for obtaining a DNP degree. And according to Gianelis, the top three reasons she sees most often are:

  • Becoming a change agent in health care
  • Rising to the top of the profession and opening more opportunities
  • Challenging themselves, setting a personal goal to never stop learning

DNP vs. other nursing degrees

Many people, including nurses, need help understanding the difference between degrees or titles with similar names or acronyms. Understanding the distinctions between a DNP, a nurse practitioner (NP), and a Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing (PhD) is essential. The following are what differentiate these vital roles:

  • DNP: The DNP emphasizes advanced clinical skills, leadership, and evidence-based practice. It prepares nurses for roles in healthcare leadership, education, advanced clinical practice, and more. It is a practice doctoral degree.
  • PhD: A PhD in nursing emphasizes research, theory development, and scholarly contributions to the field. It prepares nurses for careers in scientific research and is a research doctoral degree.
  • NP: NP is a title given to a nurse with either an MSN or DNP degree who has completed a nurse practitioner education program. NPs focus on direct patient care. 

Gianelis said obtaining her DNP forever changed how she thinks, practices, and interacts with the healthcare world. “I approach clinical practice now through a quality improvement lens, firmly rooted in evidence-based practice but with the flexibility of a patient-centered mindset,” she said. “[I’m] always looking for ways to improve patient outcomes for my community. Most importantly, I have embraced the identity of a change agent.”