PhD or Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP) Online

Online DNP programs are shaped to provide working nurses with a flexible way to work towards an online nursing doctorate. A Doctor of Nursing Practice, or DNP for short, is a practice-focused terminal degree. It provides an alternative to the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in nursing, which is steeped in scholarly research, data analysis and scientific theory. By contrast, a DNP looks at how to understand science and apply it to advanced nursing practice. Students who work towards their DNP online therefore study to gain both clinical practice proficiency and leadership skills. This might have a direct impact on patient health and delivery of healthcare services.

doctorate of nursing practice (DNP) infographicwritten by Rana Waxman

Online DNP Degree Program Tracks

The two main types of online DNP programs are the BSN-DNP and MSN-DNP. But don’t let this stop you if you are either a current advanced practice nurse (APRN) or a nurse with an associate degree in nursing (ADN). There are other pathways to earn the DNP degree, although this does not necessarily mean you get to bypass steps. With the variety of doctor of nursing practice programs online, you just need to consider what your academic entry point is, then match your requirements to the appropriate program and school.

Online RN to DNP Programs

Online RN to DNP programs are generally geared toward the registered nurse with an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) who has at least one year of practical experience. In some schools, this program might bypass a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN), but could lead to a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). Upon successful completion of the MSN curriculum, students might then seamlessly move into the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program.

Online BSN to DNP Programs

Online BSN to DNP programs, which may be referred to as ‘post-bachelors’ programs, are aimed at students who have their

bachelors degree in nursing and a valid RN license. Aside from this, applicants may also need undergraduate level courses in statistics, research, health assessment and pathophysiology.

In some schools, BSN to DNP online nursing programs might entail about 65 credits and could take a full-time student about three years to complete. Students might first work to earn their MSN degree, then roll into the doctorate. Classes that comprise online BSN to DNP programs usually cover all the nursing principles, methods, and standards of care taught at both the MSN level and the DNP level.

Below are a few course topics that may be found in BSN to DNP programs.

  • Health Care Policy and Economics
  • Clinical Specialty Courses
  • Health Informatics
  • Ethics
  • Epidemiology and Population Health

BSN to DNP online nursing programs could also stack sizable practicums on top of coursework. The practicum courses might occur in a work or clinic environment specific to a student’s area of specialty or role. As long as it is approved, online students might select a local organization to meet these requirements.

Online MSN to DNP Programs

Online MSN to DNP programs, also called ‘post-masters’ programs, are not all the same and schools may use different terminology to describe them. Here are a few of the different student groups an MSN-DNP online program might target.

Types of students:

  • Registered Nurses with a Masters Degree in another field (e.g. public health)
  • Nurses with any MSN who want to work toward APRN certification and a DNP degree
  • Nurses with an MSN and national certification in the same area as the DNP program
  • APRN nurses who want to pursue a second specialty

For online MSN-DNP programs that target RNs with a masters degree but without APRN certification, applicants may also need to have some graduate level coursework in statistics and research methods. This pathway could entail about 56 credits, which might take full-time students about two years to complete.

Online MSN/APRN to DNP Programs

Online MSN/APRN to DNP program are intended for students who have a Master of Science in Nursing degree and a current license as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). This type of program typically entails fewer courses – about 30 to 40 credits in some schools. Therefore, a student might take between one and three years to complete their DNP degree.

Applicants may also need to furnish proof they completed supervised clinical practice and may need prerequisites such as advanced health assessment, advanced pharmacology, and advanced pathophysiology.

Some of these MSN/APRN to DNP online programs could help current APRNs work towards licensure for a second specialty. These programs are somewhere between a post-MSN certificate and a MSN to DNP program, since they do not usually require students to re-take MSN courses. They may however, still entail some clinical practicum hours to help students meet all requirements for national certification and state licensure in their new specialty. Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner and Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner are two examples of potential second areas for current nurse practitioners.

Licensed APRNs who wish to earn their DNP and work towards a second specialty might be able to attend either type of program as some schools could do a gap analysis of previous MSN coursework.

Online DNP FNP Programs

Online DNP-FNP programs are designed for students who want to pursue their licensure as family nurse practitioners at the doctoral level. FNPs conduct routine checkups and health intakes, order and interpret tests, make diagnoses, prescribe medications, and initiate and manage treatment plans for their patients.i

Consequently, aside from their core courses (more on that below in the section DNP essentials), students could learn how to manage health problems of individuals through their lifespan. In fact, per the AACN, because they are advanced practice nurses, FNPs need to have highly refined clinical skills. For this reason, an online DNP to FNP student is likely to take three mandatory courses: (1) advanced health and physical assessment, (2) advanced physiology and pathophysiology, (3) advanced pharmacology.ii

Additional Admission Information

Admission to online DNP programs varies by program and university. Most, if not all, schools ask to see transcripts and may want to see that students have earned their past degree(s) at schools that are regionally accredited and/or programmatically approved by the ACEN, NLNAC or CCNE. Also, they are likely to want a copy of your current RN and APRN licenses, if applicable. Beside this, applicants often need to furnish letters of reference from people such as faculty or nurse supervisors, a personal statement, and up-to-date resume. Some schools follow up with an interview that might be conducted via telephone.

Online DNP Essentials

The main elements of online DNP programs are (1) applied research and (2) clinical practice. These two basics are reflected in coursework, supervised clinical hours, and a final action research project.

“With development of DNP programs, this new degree will become the preferred preparation for specialty nursing practice.”ii

DNP Online Programs Coursework

In their coursework, online DNP students could learn to apply theories and methods to problems and practices in a student’s technical field of nursing, whether this is to direct care or indirect care. Direct care are areas where patient health and safety are affected, and primarily cover Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs): This includes (a) nurse practitioners (NPs), (b) nurse midwives (CNMs), (c) nurse anesthetists CRNAs), and (d) clinical nurse specialists (CNSs). Indirect care includes (a) nurse executives, and (b) nurse informatics.

Accredited online DNP programs tend to develop content that uses what the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) calls the “Essentials of Doctoral Education for Advanced Nursing Practice.”ii

These 8 Essentials are:

  1. Scientific Bases for Practice
  2. Quality Improvement & Systems Thinking
  3. Analytical Methods for Evidence-Based Practice
  4. Information Systems, Technology & Patient Care
  5. Health Care Policy for Advocacy in Health Care
  6. Inter-Professional Collaboration
  7. Clinical Prevention & Population Health
  8. Advanced Nursing Practice

Competencies and Extra Content

Other coursework is intended to help nurses develop expertise in their nursing specialty whether this is in advanced practice or organization. The specific content is therefore reliant on what competency a nurse wants to build. To this point, the AACN gives each DNP program some “academic freedom to create innovative and integrated curricula” to meet these needs. ii Make sure to read the school syllabus to see how it might work for you.

Advanced Practice Nursing: Online DNP students who focus on advanced practice nursing could learn how to provide care for a very specific population. Pediatrics, Adult Gerontology, Women’s Health, and Mental Health are some examples. For instance, a course in palliative care nursing could help students learn how to deliver care to a patient and family amid life-threatening illness.

Administration, Information Technology, Leadership: Online DNP students who pursue an area of emphasis in administrative, healthcare policy, informatics, and population-based specialties focus their practice on groups. The groups are sums of various populations, systems (including information systems), organizations, and state or national policies. While students might not have direct patient care duties, they could study to learn how to define health problems and define large scale health interventions. ii For instance, students who work towards an online DNP in Nurse Leadership might take a course on negotiations.

DNP Final Project

To earn a Doctorate in Nursing Practice degree, students need to meet all their requirements. One of these is a final DNP project that is presented and evaluated. Usually, the student, under faculty guidance, completes a clinical pilot study to demonstrate mastery of program content. Each DNP scholarly project must be unique and centered around a prospective practice or policy change.

What Does It Mean to Earn a DNP Degree Online?

There are different formats for online DNP programs that students could consider. Some might be fully online, but others may have some residency components. Students should therefore carefully consider not just the structure of a program, but what their own learning style is.

Online DNP Programs with 100% Online Instruction

Some universities might offer DNP programs that provide all course material via web-based instruction in one of two set ups. The first is via asynchronous delivery, which usually means pre-recorded lectures that students can access anytime. Second, coursework could be accessed through live video lectures and virtual classrooms that allow students to interact in real time. Either way, students could expect to take part in any discussions and webinars online as well. DNP programs with 100% online instruction may be ideal for students with busy work schedules, those who do not live near a university that offers DNP programs, or those otherwise unable to regularly commute to campus due to personal or professional restrictions.

Online DNP Programs with Limited Campus Visits

Some online DNP programs might entail limited visits to campus. These brief residencies might be centered around skills workshops, orientations, or immersion events. The number and length of campus visits required varies by program. Online MSN to DNP programs are less likely to require campus visits compared to online BSN to DNP programs, since students may have fewer ‘hands-on’ courses. However, many universities require that DNP students be onsite to present their final DNP project defense in person. Limited residency online DNP programs might be suitable for students who want the benefits of online education and want to meet with instructors and classmates for more personal interaction.

Why Earn an Online DNP?

For decades, advanced practice nurses were required to hold a Masters degree to enter the field, but this may be phased out. However, the profession started to realize that healthcare is more complex than it once was, and, as such, that nurses needed more education and preparation. The AACN thus came out with a position statement, supported by other organizations, that advocates the DNP takeover as the entry-point to advanced nursing—much as other practical doctoral degrees in other health professions (PharmD, MD, DPT) have done. ii

Accredited Online DNP Programs

Are online DNP programs accredited? There are two levels of accreditation to look for – programmatic and institutional. A school that is regionally accredited shows that it continues to meet standards for higher education institutions. However, it does not automatically mean that its individual online doctor of nursing practice programs are approved.

Two programmatic accreditors of DNP programs are the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN). Accredited online DNP programs tend to follow the guidelines of these agencies for professional standards and course material. They might also be eligible for federal financial aid.

Take the Next Step Towards Earning an Online DNP Degree

Easily compare various sponsored online DNP programs right here. Read through program descriptions then contact the schools directly. We provide the on-page form to help you make your next move now.

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