How to Become an Acute Care Nurse Practitioner

Learn about the many opportunities in acute care nursing.

Nurses rush patient to ER

The Basics

What you’ll do: An acute care nurse practitioner (ACNP) provides advanced nursing care to patients suffering brief but severe illnesses, typically in an emergency department, ambulatory care clinic or other short term stay facility. ACNPs diagnose and treat acute medical conditions, working in collaboration with the physician and other members of the health care team. The ACNP profession is one of the more fast-paced nursing career choices, and it is loaded with responsibility and variety.

Degree you’ll need to practice: Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

Certification: Certification is a formal process that validates your qualifications and knowledge on a subject or specialty. Acute care nurses must be licensed as a registered nurse (RN) or advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) and receive national certification from an agency such as the American Association of Nurse Practitioners.

Median annual salary: $111,840*

Career Overview

An acute care nurse practitioner may work in an emergency room, operating room, walk-in clinic, doctors’ office, critical care unit or community-based environment. ACNPs care for patients suffering from acute conditions such as heart attacks, respiratory distress syndrome or shock.

They also care for pre- and post-operative patients, and may perform advanced, invasive diagnostic and therapeutic procedures. Acute care nurse practitioners may serve as case managers and team leaders.

Acute Care Nurse Practitioner Education

ACNPs are nurse practitioners (NPs) with a specialty in acute care nursing.

Acute care nurse practitioners must first complete a 2- or 4-year degree in nursing and be licensed as registered nurses (RNs). Most gain experience as acute care RNs before returning to school to earn an advanced degree and become Advanced Practice Nurses (APNs).

To become an acute care nurse practitioner, you will also need to meet these requirements:

  • You will need to get a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree that includes specialized ACNP coursework. Nursing schools usually offer this degree as a 2-year program with about 40 credit hours of coursework, plus hundreds of clinical study hours.
  • If you already have a master’s degree in nursing, you may be able to prepare for ACNP certification with a 1-year post-master’s program.
  • Once you have completed your nursing school training, you must become certified by your State Board of Nursing or receive a national certification from an agency such as the American Nurses Credentialing Center or the American Association of Nurse Practitioners.

Career Outlook

The current health care crisis in the US has resulted in a particular need for acute care specialists, in spite of a decrease in the number of facilities providing such care. That’s because more patients are uninsured or under-insured. Unable to pay for preventative or ongoing medical care, these patients are more likely to turn to emergency rooms and other acute care settings. ACNPs are therefore in tremendous demand in these settings, particularly because they can provide lower-cost primary care than physicians.

Sources: American Academy of Nurse Practitioners;; U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2018-19 Occupational Outlook Handbook; Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners.

*The salary information listed is based on a national average, unless noted. Actual salaries may vary greatly based on specialization within the field, location, years of experience and a variety of other factors. National long-term projections of employment growth may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions, and do not guarantee actual job growth.