2021 Guide to Online Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Programs

Registered nurses who enjoy working with patients who have complex or even life-threatening conditions may decide to become acute care nurse practitioners. Online acute care nurse practitioner programs, often offered through a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree, prepare you to enter this career. Through an MSN in acute care nursing online, you may be able to prepare for an acute care NP role while continuing to work as an RN.

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What Is an Acute Care Nurse Practitioner (ACNP)?

An acute care nurse practitioner is an advanced practice nurse who provides care to patients with serious illnesses or injuries. Their duties include monitoring the patient’s condition, developing treatment plans and preventing future complications. 

ACNPs may work in emergency rooms, intensive care units, skilled nursing facilities or outpatient practices. Some ACNPs specialize in treating either pediatric patients or adult-gerontology patients. Pursuing online healthcare degrees may be beneficial for an RN who wants to continue working while they study to become an acute care nurse practitioner.

To become an ACNP, you’ll first complete the training to become a registered nurse. After that, you may complete an MSN program with a specialization in acute care nursing and choose to pass a certification exam for your specialty. Some online MSN programs offer a concentration in either adult-gerontology or pediatric acute care nursing.

What to Expect from an MSN in Acute Care Nursing Online Program

Online acute care nurse practitioner programs, like other online healthcare degrees, allow students to learn from a distance. Below are some elements you may see in an online acute care NP program. 

  • Online Classes: These are generally delivered over the university’s chosen learning management system. Classes may be livestreamed, with students required to be online at a set time to interact with instructors and peers. These are called synchronous classes. Classes may also be available in an on-demand format, with students able to watch prerecorded lectures at their convenience. These are called asynchronous classes.
  • Class Content: In addition to live and recorded lectures, class content in online ACNP programs may include discussion boards, interactive activities and information presented in a multimedia format.
  • Clinical Skills Training: Some online acute care nurse practitioner programs may have on-campus skills training in which students practice assessing patients and develop clinical skills, such as performing central line insertion and ultrasounds.
  • Clinical Placements: Clinical placements through online ACNP programs allow aspiring acute care NPs to put classroom learning into practice by gaining field experience. Clinical placements may help you meet certification requirements. For example, to become a certified pediatric nurse practitioner-primary care (CPNP-PC), you are required by the Pediatric Nursing Certification Board (PNCB) to have at least 500 clinical hours of direct patient care. Many programs allow nurses to complete their clinical placements locally. 

RN to MSN Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Programs

Registered nurses who don’t have a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) may find programs that allow them to complete prerequisite undergraduate courses and advance to master’s-level coursework. Classes may cover topics such as anatomy, physiology, microbiology and pathophysiology. You may also complete a course in statistics, which is a common admissions requirement for MSN in acute care nursing online programs. The RN to MSN curriculum may also require registered nurses who don’t have a bachelor’s degree to take general education classes such as English composition, social studies and humanities.

Pediatric Acute Care Nurse Programs (PNP-AC)

A pediatric acute care nursing program trains students to treat children and infants with complex or rapidly changing conditions. These programs may prepare aspiring acute care pediatric nurse practitioners (PNP-ACs) to work in settings such as hospitals, emergency departments, specialty clinics and critical care transport teams. Some pediatric acute care nursing programs may also focus on preparing you to work not just with patients but also with their families.

Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Programs (AG-ACNP)

Adult-gerontology acute care nursing covers a broad range of patients from adolescents to older adults. Through their studies and clinical practice, aspiring adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioners learn to diagnose and manage complex and acute injuries. This may include caring for critically ill and injured adult and geriatric patients. The clinical component of adult-gerontology online acute care nurse practitioner programs allows students to apply their classroom knowledge. 

Online Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Program Admissions Requirements

Though acute care nurse program admissions requirements vary by program, there are some common requirements. For example, having a nursing license and letters of recommendation may be typical requirements. 

Some acute care nurse program admissions requirements you may come across include:

  • Bachelor’s degree in nursing from an accredited school; if you don’t have a BSN, you may consider completing an RN to MSN nurse practitioner program, in which case you only need an associate degree in nursing from an accredited school and an RN license
  • Professional experience in acute care or critical care nursing
  • Grade-point average of 3.0 or higher; some schools may look at your cumulative GPA, while other schools may look at your nursing GPA specifically
  • Personal statement explaining your interest in acute care and your future career plans
  • Resume detailing your work experience
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Transcripts
  • Proof that you have a valid, unencumbered nursing license

Some online acute care nurse practitioner programs may also require an admissions interview. Verify specific admissions requirements at the university you’re interested in. 

Online ACNP Program Curriculum

The curriculum of an online ACNP program is made up of core courses typical for students in an MSN nurse practitioner track and specific courses related to acute care.

Core courses may cover topics such as: 

  • Foundations of nursing
  • Ethics
  • Research for clinical practice
  • Pharmacology
  • Physiology 
  • Epidemiology
  • Health care policy and economics

Acute care nurse practitioner courses focus on the specialized care of adult or pediatric patients with acute conditions. They focus on diagnosing and managing common and complex acute health care issues. Some speciality course topics may include:

  • Diagnostic imaging 
  • Sutures and wound management
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG) interpretation
  • Infectious diseases
  • Medical emergencies
  • Cardiac, pulmonary and transplant problems
  • Renal, endocrine and gastrointestinal problems
  • Hemostasis and thrombus problems
  • Musculoskeletal and neurological issues

Clinical Experience for Acute Care Nurse Practitioners

Some online programs schedule on-campus intensives, where students get hands-on experience in health assessment and clinical techniques like central line insertion. Students may be required to attend two or three intensives, which tend to be scheduled in advance so employed nurses can plan their work schedules accordingly.

In online acute care nurse practitioner programs, students may gain clinical experience caring for acute care patients. Students may complete clinical experience in an intensive care, urgent care or emergency setting. During these practicums, nurses may gain experience assessing patients with complex health issues, documenting their medical histories, performing physical exams and diagnosing lab results. You also may gain experience working in different specialty areas.

Many online nursing programs allow students to complete their clinical rotations near their home, provided a qualified preceptor is available. Other programs may only have clinical placements in the city or state where the school is located. In those cases, you may have to complete your clinical experience in that area and have an RN license in that state. 

ANCC Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Certification Requirements

The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) provides certification in acute care nursing for the adult-gerontology specialization. To gain the Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Certification (AGACNP-BC), applicants must pass a 200-question exam (175 questions are scored; 25 pretest questions are not scored). 

According to the ANCC, some of the eligibility requirements to take the AGACNP-BC exam and become a certified adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner include:

  • Having an active RN license
  • Holding a master’s, post-graduate or doctoral degree from an accredited adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner program and having completed at least 500 supervised clinical hours 
  • Having taken graduate-level courses in physiology, health assessment and pharmacology

The Pediatric Nursing Certification Board provides certification for pediatric acute care nurse practitioners and has similar eligibility requirements for its CPNP-AC Exam. If you’re interested in pursuing a doctoral degree to fulfill educational requirements, you may consider exploring online Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) programs.

Acute Care NP Salary and Job Outlook

Nurse practitioners earned a median salary of $109,820 in 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). While the BLS doesn’t specifically track acute care nurse salaries, it does report the annual mean salary for nurse practitioners in general medical and surgical hospitals—it was $115,790 in May 2019. However, nursing salaries by state may vary. Depending on your nursing degree specialty, your career options as a nurse practitioner can also differ. 

The BLS reports that employment of the nurse practitioners is expected to increase 45% from 2019 to 2029, which is much faster than average. An increased focus on preventive care and demand for healthcare services from the aging population will drive this growth. These statistics may positively affect acute care nurse practitioner jobs as well. 

Online MSN in Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Programs FAQ

If you are still wondering which nursing degree might be right for you, below you’ll find answers to common questions about online acute care nurse practitioner programs. Discover common steps to become an acute care nurse practitioner and more.

What Is the Difference Between Primary Care and Acute Care Nursing?

Primary care nursing focuses on primary health care, including disease prevention and management of common illnesses and conditions. The role of primary care nurse practitioners is to provide comprehensive, long-term care.

Acute care nursing works with patients who have complex or rapidly changing conditions. Acute care nurse practitioners’ patients include people with unstable acute conditions or multisystem chronic conditions. 

Is There a Demand for Acute Care Nurse Practitioners?

The BLS reports that employment of nurse practitioners is expected to increase 45% from 2019 to 2029. That’s much higher than the overall rate of growth for jobs in the United States. This growth will result in approximately 110,700 additional nurse practitioner jobs by 2029—some of which may be acute care nurse practitioner jobs specifically.  

How Can I Become an Acute Care Nurse Practitioner?

Though everyone’s path is different, here are common steps to become an acute care nurse practitioner. First, attend a certified nursing school and earn a BSN. You can become a nurse without earning a BSN, but most MSN programs require a BSN. Next, pass the exam to become a registered nurse. Then, get professional nursing experience in a critical care setting. Earn an MSN in acute care nursing online or in-person. Finally, pass the certification exam to become a certified acute care nurse practitioner. Licensure requirements may vary state by state, so make sure to check your specific state’s requirements. 

How Long Does it Take to Become an Acute Care NP?

This answer depends on whether you take classes on a full-time or part-time schedule. Full-time students may be able to earn an MSN in a little less than two years. Part-time students may be able to complete the requirements in about two and a half years. In addition, registered nurses who don’t have a BSN may have to take additional classes before starting master’s-level courses. 

Last Updated October 2020