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What is a DNP Degree: Becoming a Leader in Healthcare

Whether you are just getting started in your nursing career or education or simply haven’t heard much about advanced nursing degrees, it’s reasonable to ask: What is a DNP degree? No one could fault you for having questions, since the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) hasn’t been around for very long. In fact, the first DNP program started in 1999. Since then,, the popularity of DNP degrees has grown enormously, and they are now seen as essential preparation for many specialized advanced nursing roles and healthcare leadership positions.

Continue reading to learn more about what DNP degrees are all about — including why Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree holders choose to pursue them to prepare for careers in healthcare leadership.

nurse leader in scrubs

What Is a DNP Degree? Addressing an Urgent Need in Nursing Education

In the past, the only doctoral-level nursing degree available was a PhD. However, PhD programs focus heavily on academic research, whereas direct-care nurses faced an entirely different set of challenges, including staffing shortages, high nurse-patient ratios, mandatory overtime, and safety issues. Many felt that PhD holders were out of touch with the daily realities of direct-care nursing and therefore ill equipped to be leaders in the profession.

In addition to the leadership gap in nursing, the scope of nursing work itself was also changing. Previously, those who wanted to become advanced practice nurses (APNs) would earn a master’s degree from a program that provided specialized clinical training in a specific area. Additionally, master’s programs nationwide were overfilled with qualified applicants, and there was a major shortage of faculty to teach them. It also started to seem as if master’s programs were inadequate preparation to meet some of the nursing challenges of today.

In recent years, the combination of a physician shortage and the increased demand to develop streamlined strategies that produce more efficient care delivery has produced an increased need for nurse leaders. These individuals should carry extensive clinical experience, skills to manage other nurses and clinical staff, and the ability to oversee strategies to improve patient care.

All of these issues made it clear that nursing would have to change to meet the needs of a transforming healthcare system. Doctor of Nursing Practice programs were created as a solution. They would provide students with specialized, clinically focused advanced training; teach them to incorporate the latest research into their nursing practice; and instruct them in leadership and systemic organizational skills to effectively manage teams and oversee and improve healthcare operations.

Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland created a precursor to the DNP program in 1979. It wasn’t until 1999, however, that the University of Tennessee Health Science Center started the first DNP program. Other universities soon followed. As of 2017, there were over 300 DNP programs around the country in all 50 states.

Benefits of the DNP

The projected physician shortage has created a substantial need for effective nurse leaders. While this is a serious issue in healthcare, it also provides those interested in advanced nursing degrees with unique opportunities. Some of the key benefits of the DNP include:

The Opportunity to Become a Health Leader

No matter what career path BSN to DNP graduates choose to follow, it will likely lead to a leadership role, with the opportunity to make an impact on the future of healthcare by helping shape a rapidly evolving system. There are numerous ways to lead, depending on an individual’s particular strengths, values, and interests. Each of these attributes is vital to the future of nursing and healthcare as a whole.

The Chance to Shape Health Policy

DNP graduates usually acquire a breadth of knowledge and skills that prepares them to participate in healthcare policy-making. Their clinical experience, combined with their research expertise and leadership training, gives them a unique perspective and valuable insights into the best ways to improve patient care and organizational efficiency.

If you want to make a difference by influencing healthcare policy, a DNP degree is excellent preparation.

A Unique Way to Impact Patients’ Lives

For DNP graduates who want to impact patients’ lives directly by providing more specialized or a greater level of care, a nurse practitioner career reflects a rewarding way to do so. As our healthcare system evolves to rely more heavily on nurse practitioners, they should continue to see expanding patient care opportunities and greater autonomy. Twenty-two states (plus the District of Columbia) now allow nurse practitioners to open their own clinics without a physician’s supervision. For DNPs who seek independence and a larger role in determining a patient’s care, working as a private practice nurse practitioner can make an impact on the front lines of healthcare.

The Ability to Educate Future Leaders

DNP graduates who want to improve healthcare by molding tomorrow’s nurses and healthcare leaders should find plenty of opportunities to do so. By helping alleviate the shortage of nurse educators, DNP grads can make a difference not only in the lives of their students but in nursing overall as they prepare students to fill much-needed nursing roles. The next generation of nursing educators is likely to factor into whether our healthcare system can adapt to meet our changing population and world.

Why Become a DNP?

Now that you’ve received some answers to your initial question (“What is a DNP degree?”), you probably are wondering why a nurse with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) should choose to enter a BSN to DNP program. The answer depends on the individual, of course, but here are some of the most common reasons to enroll in a BSN to DNP program:

  • Leadership: BSN to DNP programs represent a great opportunity for individuals who are looking to take on leadership roles in the workplace. For those who enjoy energizing and motivating others, who have a knack for spotting inefficiencies and making things run more smoothly, or who want to have a larger impact on healthcare, a DNP degree may create new paths to leadership positions.
  • Career Movement: Many see a BSN to DNP program as a stepping stone to the highest levels of nursing. Whether you seek greater professional autonomy, want a higher salary, or are driven to push your career growth, BSN to DNP programs may help you pursue advanced nursing positions that would be difficult or nearly impossible to access without a DNP degree.
  • Choice of Professional Concentration: Many BSN to DNP students pursue areas of study that require advanced degrees. Specialized fields such as adult-gerontology acute care and psychiatric mental health demand a greater depth of knowledge — and more credit hours — than a master’s program.

DNP Career Opportunities

Those nurses who are interested in taking their careers to the next level with a DNP degree are fortunate to be experiencing a highly favorable employment climate. While nursing jobs of all kinds are on the rise, advanced nursing jobs are growing at even greater rates. Of course, the job outlook varies according to which specific career path a BSN to DNP graduate chooses to follow, but many of the most popular DNP careers currently have strong outlooks.

Nurse Educator

Many DNP graduates choose to pursue careers in academia to educate the next generation of nurses. The widespread shortage of nursing faculty has been a major crisis in the field, so DNP graduates who pursue teaching are filling a critical need. They can likely expect strong job prospects when they graduate, as the BLS projects that college- and postgraduate-level nursing instructor positions will increase by 20%, or 13,800 jobs, from 2018 to 2028.

Patient Advocate

Patient advocacy is a relatively new field that experts predict will grow at high rates over the coming years. Patient advocates are responsible for guiding patients through the often complex and confusing healthcare system, helping them find the care they need in the most affordable way possible. Pointing to the increasing impact of this burgeoning profession is the fact that in New York and California, entire government offices are dedicated to patient advocacy. In addition to state government, patient advocates may work in hospitals, nonprofits, community agencies, or independent practices. While the BLS doesn’t calculate specific data for patient advocacy jobs, experts predict that patient advocates will play an increasingly larger role in our healthcare system.

Private Practice

Many DNP graduates choose to work in private practice within their area of specialization. It is becoming more common for nurse practitioners to operate their own practice, without a physician’s supervision. As of December 2019, 23 states and the District of Columbia grant full practice authority (FPA) to nurse practitioners, and that number will likely continue to grow.

Make a Difference in an Important Industry

Quality healthcare can make a visceral impact on an individual’s life. Therefore, the field of healthcare demands leaders who can guide others through the industry’s ever-evolving changes so the ability to deliver optimal care that improves patient outcomes is consistently met.

DNP holders are uniquely positioned to be the leaders who are so critically needed, both today and tomorrow. If you have already earned your Bachelor of Nursing Science (BSN), Maryville University’s online BSN to DNP program can prepare you to take on leadership roles that may allow you to have a greater impact on the lives of patients. And since there is a large demand for nursing leaders in our healthcare system now, there has never been a more opportune moment to advance your education.

Recommended Readings

Future Trends in Healthcare for DNPs

Treating Patients in the Future of Medicine: What DNPs Need to Know

What Nursing Degree Is Right for Me?


American Association of Nurse Practitioners, State Practice Environment

CNBC, “America’s Aging Population is Leading to a Doctor Shortage Crisis”

Patient Safety & Quality Healthcare, “Who Is the Patient Advocate?”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Postsecondary Teachers