How to explain the role of NPs to patients

Patients always have questions. It’s hard to find a patient that will just agree in silence to everything a clinician tells them. In fact, a big part of a nurse’s job is to help them navigate those questions and find good answers to them. Even more so than doctors, in many cases.


A very common question your patients might have is about your profession. What is exactly a nurse practitioner? 


For many of them, the term is a bit nebulous. But that’s okay. Helping them understand what nurse practitioners do can be very rewarding not just for them, but for you in particular.


Not too long ago, we wrote about some things you can do when you encounter a patient that doesn’t want to speak to a nurse practitioner.


However, in this article, we’ll quickly explore how you can start explaining your scope of practice to those patients who might be genuinely interested, or who just want to ensure they’re getting the type of healthcare that they’re paying for.


Why you should explain


Some people think that it’s terrible that nurse practitioners have to “explain” their job. After all, physicians don’t have this issue. Other similar clinicians don’t have this issue.


That’s a pretty good point, to be honest. NPs should not have to justify or explain their own existence at every turn. They undergo study and training, just like anyone else, and then go out and put that knowledge into their practice. 


However, educating patients about the scope of practice of an NP is a good way to foster acceptance and understanding. This is helpful if we want to create a society where nurse practitioners don’t have to justify themselves to the people they’re treating.


If you explain what you do in a concise manner, you’re helping to dispel misconceptions about nurse practitioners, one patient at a time. And, of course, doing your job correctly also does wonders!


It’s important to train yourself on how to inform people on your job, because there’s no one better to answer these patients’ questions than you, a nurse practitioner!


In short, you can join the AANP, you can donate to the cause, and you can get involved. But the easiest (and most important) way in which you can help other NPs is by knowing exactly what to say to patients when they ask you about your job.



How you should present yourself


We go back to our main question: what is a nurse practitioner? How do you start to explain what it entails? It can be quite difficult to do that on a single visit. 


To make the most out of your time, let’s start with a simple concept.


First, it’s better to tell the patient that you are, first and foremost, a nurse. Words like “clinician” or “provider” can help you get your point across, but they might also lead to confusion. It’s better for patients to understand that they’re seeing a nurse, one that’s educated to help them in a specialized way.


Presenting yourself as a nurse will bring them to ask questions like: “why am I seeing a nurse instead of a doctor?” And that can be complicated to answer. However, it’s also a good starting point for them to understand what nurse practitioners can and can’t do. 


What you definitely should not do is dismiss these patients as “difficult” and ask them to just “let you do your job.”


Some patients are, indeed, difficult. If they are making a huge fuss about not wanting to be treated by you, that’s a different story. The article we mentioned above can help you with that, so go check it out!


You’ll find, however, that it’s very easy to pique their interest and curiosity by presenting yourself exactly as you are. You could argue that NPs are different from “regular” nurses, but a nurse practitioner is a nurse. This should be your entry point for communication about the subject.


Introducing ideas little by little


“So, why is a nurse seeing me instead of a doctor?” they will most likely ask.


Well, since you’ve already presented yourself as a nurse, you can turn this into a teachable moment by just stating that you have specialized knowledge and training. You don’t have to go into all the details, just start with that statement.


In the best case scenario, this might prompt the patient to actually ask questions about what those details are. For many of them, this might be their first time seeing an NP, or they might have heard about NPs before but are not sure about it, etc.


What you’re telling them here is just that you’re a nurse who has the specialized knowledge they require right now to get treatment. This is a much easier concept to understand than trying to explain to them what a “mid-level provider” is.


It’s all about introducing ideas little by little. First, they understand who’s caring for them, and second, they now understand why. And many of them will be curious about the role of this specialized, highly-trained nurse. They will want to learn more.


This is when you open yourself to questions. Ask them if they’d be interested in knowing more about the profession. Ask them if they’ve heard about NPs before. At this point, they will have shifted their view from “why is a nurse doing this” to “I didn’t know nurses could do this.”



What you should definitely never do


Of course, there will always be patients who think that nurses are somehow beneath them. That’s the sad reality. 


A mistake many NPs might make is to try to approach these patients by putting themselves above them, getting defensive, and trying to set themselves apart from other “regular” nurses by repeating the title “nurse practitioner” over and over. 


This doesn’t help them understand anything. They don’t know what a nurse practitioner is anyway. Many of them, sadly, don’t even care. It’s not really your fault once it turns into an argument and they start asking for the “real” doctor.


Trying to differentiate yourself from RNs, for example, is appropriate and necessary. However, you should never use your NP title as an excuse to put yourself above RNs just so the patient will fall in line. We’re all nurses, and we all have different and very valuable jobs to do.


Helping patients understand that there are different nurses with different scopes of practice, doing different things at different stages in their careers, leads to much more positive outcomes in general.


Answering common questions


You should go into every patient visit with a clear understanding of an NPs scope of practice. This sounds obvious, but there are many NPs out there who aren’t 100% sure of what they can or can’t do.


However, even if you’re not 100% informed about your scope of practice, you’re at least at a 95%, and that’s likely a way higher level of information than you patients’. If they start asking questions related to certain aspects of your practice, you should know how to answer.


Scope of practice varies by state and by specialty, and since that’s not the main topic of this article, you might have to do some homework on it if you’re having doubts about it. We might work on an article addressing scope of practice soon, so please stay tuned to our Instagram and Facebook pages so you don’t miss it!


It’s so important for you to be well-informed because many of the patients’ questions will essentially boil down to “can you do this or that.”


Other questions like “what makes you different from a doctor,” for example, you can explain by going back to the first point. 


We know there’s a lot more nuance to the profession than just saying you’re a “different kind of nurse.” However, for patients, this explanation can be easy to understand and acceptable, in most cases.


The advice here serves as a starting point for you to get on the right mindset when talking to patients about being a nurse practitioner. Open communication and a good, simple introduction can very often work wonders.




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