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Is There More Need for Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners Than Family Nurse Practitioners?

by Robin Elizabeth Margolis

Nurse practitioners, also called NPs, are nurses who have earned a nursing bachelor's degree and a master's or doctoral nursing degree. They are licensed by the state in which they practice and are frequently board certified in specialties such as psychiatry and family practice. The question of whether the need for psychiatric nurse practitioners will outstrip the current demand for family medicine nurse practitioners involves looking at three factors -- the nurse practitioner profession's gradual split into specialties, the career paths available to family medicine NPs and psychiatric NPs, and the number of current job vacancies for both specialties.

Development of NP Specializations

The earliest NP programs focused on producing NPs as assistants to family practice doctors, responding to the continuing national shortage of physicians in this specialty. NPs subsequently branched into other specialties, following the specializations taken by physicians. As of 2013, the American Nurses Credentialing Center officially certifies nurse practitioners in the following specialties: acute care, adult care, gerontology, psychiatric-mental health, family medicine, pediatrics, schools, diabetes management and emergency medicine. Other specializations include neonatal health, oncology, women's health and numerous other medical fields.

Family Medicine NPs

In 2012, 117,000 doctors and 134,000 nurse practitioners specialized in family medicine, but thousands of these family doctors will retire in the near future. A 2012 study by the National Governors Association estimated that an additional 4,000 to 7,000 additional family physicians will be necessary by 2019, a gap unlikely to be filled because of an existing shortage of family doctors. Nurse practitioners have started setting up independent family medicine practices to meet the need for primary care. While most states still require NPs to practice in tandem with a doctor or under a doctor's supervision, 18 states and the District of Columbia allowed NPs to set up independent practices, as of 2013. In some areas, such as rural counties, NPs will likely be replacing family physicians.

Psychiatric-Mental Health NPs

Prospects for psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioners, also known as PMHNPs, are different from those of family practice NPs. A national shortage of psychiatrists parallels that of family physicians. Psychiatric NPs can prescribe psychiatric medications in most states, but as of 2013, legal and regulatory constraints prevent psychiatric NPs from setting up independent practices and replacing psychiatrists. Clinical psychologists trained in pharmacology will probably replace psychiatrists. Psychiatric NPs will continue working for mental health clinics, social service agencies, psychiatric hospitals, health maintenance organizations and other medical groups.

Job Outlook

A 2011 national salary survey by the Advance Healthcare Network showed that psychiatric NPs made an average yearly salary of $92,396, while family medicine NPs made $89,317 per year. Family medicine NPs outnumbered psychiatric NPs -- 15.68 percent of the survey respondents were family medicine NPs, and 2.83 percent were psychiatric NPs. As of 2013, family medicine NP online job openings outnumbered psychiatric NP jobs. There appears to be a greater demand for family medicine NPs than for psychiatric NPs. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Labor estimated that jobs for all nurse practitioners would increase by 20 to 28 percent between 2010 and 2020.

About the Author

Robin Elizabeth Margolis is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area. She has been writing about health care, science, nutrition, fitness and law since 1988, and served as the editor of a health law newsletter. Margolis holds a bachelor of arts degree in biology, a master's degree in counseling and a paralegal certificate.

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