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RN, NP, CNP — What Do They All Mean?


By Amy Kennard

Have you ever gone to a physician’s office and, while the nurse is asking you about your health history, glanced at her name tag? If you have, chances are you’ve noticed the string of letters behind her name. Though you may not know what they stand for, you probably realize that she worked pretty hard to earn them (please note: while nurses are both male and female, we use “she” in this article for simplicity’s sake).

It’s actually important for you to know the various nurse designations. Say you call into the doctor’s office to schedule an appointment quickly, but they tell you, “The doctor isn’t available, but I can schedule you with the nurse practitioner.” What exactly does that mean? What level of medical care can you expect?

Education and experience
Nursing career choices usually stem from a combination of education and experience that prospective nurses obtain early in their career.

Nurses can be categorized by the level of education or degree they have, or the type of certification they hold. Others focus on a specific population, like babies, women, or the elderly. Some may choose a particular specialty, like surgery, OB/GYN, or emergency medicine.

Finally, nurses may decide a path by location or facility, such as flight nurses or school nurses.

Regardless, any individual who completes a nursing degree earns a designation — and many have more than one. Here we’ll break down what all the abbreviations mean and what you need to know about each one.  

RN (Registered Nurse)
An RN has completed at least an associate’s degree in nursing or a Bachelor of Science in nursing and has passed the National Council of State Boards of Nursing certification exam. Registered nurses provide direct care to patients, assist physicians with medical procedures, monitor medical equipment, and work with families of patients.

NP (Nurse Practitioner)
An NP is an RN who has completed either a master’s or doctoral degree program, plus clinical training. NPs provide a full range of primary, acute, and specialty care services with an emphasis on the health and wellbeing of the whole person. NPs can practice autonomously in many states, but some still require the oversight of a physician.

CNP (Certified Nurse Practitioner)
A CNP is an RN who has additional education and training in a specialty area, such as family practice or pediatrics. CNPs have a master’s degree in nursing and board certification in their specialty. For example, a pediatric CNP has advanced education, skills, and training in caring for infants, children, and teens. CNPs are authorized to diagnose illnesses, treat conditions, and provide evidence-based health education to their patients.

FNP (Family Nurse Practitioner)
The most common specialization of an NP is as an FNP. An FNP serves the healthcare needs of individuals and families by providing comprehensive care throughout their lifespans. FNPs may work independently or with other primary care clinicians and healthcare and social service professionals in places such as clinics, schools, and workplaces.

WHNP (Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner)
A WHNP is an RN who provides primary health care services to women, beginning at adolescence and continuing through pregnancy and menopause. Although the focus of a WHNP’s practice may be largely gynecological or childbearing-oriented, a WHNP also provides care for acute and chronic health problems and can offer health counseling services, preventative services, and referrals to relevant specialists when necessary.

APN (Advanced Practice Nurse)
An APN assesses, diagnoses, and manages patient problems, orders tests, and prescribes medications. An APN has completed a master’s degree in nursing (MS or MSN), a doctorate degree in nursing and is board certified. Depending on her education and clinical training, an APN can also be a CNP (Certified Nurse Practitioner), CNM (Certified Nurse Midwife), CRNA (Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist), or CNS (Clinical Nurse Specialist).

DNP (Doctor of Nursing Practice)
The DNP is a practice-focused doctoral degree to prepare nurses for advanced nursing practice roles. The curriculum involves diagnostics, advanced practice, and disease treatment and graduates are able to become independent practitioners. DNPs also educate the next generation of healthcare providers in order to increase access to quality health care and improve health care outcomes.
The type of nurse you see may depend on your medical needs or the kind of facility you attend. Regardless, a nurse is the person who will most likely coordinate your treatments, medications, diagnostics, and therapies and communicate with any physicians and specialists involved in order to ensure that you receive the best care possible.   
Dele Ogunleye, M.D., and Lisa Emm, M.D., provide a full range of obstetric and gynecologic services. Brittany King is an advanced practice nurse specializing in women’s health. She works alongside Dr. Ogunleye and Dr. Emm to provide a full range of obstetric and gynecologic services. You may contact them at Advanced Women’s Healthcare, 309-808-3068, or The office is located at 2111 East Oakland Avenue (Next to the Jewel-Osco Plaza).