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A women’s health nurse practitioner (WHNP) is an advanced practice registered nurse who cares for women through various stages of their life, with a focus on reproductive, obstetric, and gynecological health. WHNPs start their careers as registered nurses and education for entry into practice is achieved through both master’s and Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) programs, per the latest clinical guidelines from the National Association of Nurse Practitioners in Women’s Health (NPWH). WHNPs assess, diagnose, and treat conditions that relate to women’s health care and provide preventative care and education for patients across the lifespan. Examples of preventative care include:

  • Well-woman exams
  • Breast cancer screenings
  • Papanicolau (Pap) tests
  • Contraceptive care
  • Fertility evaluations
  • Prenatal visits
  • Post-pregnancy care
  • Menopausal care

Growing Demand for NPs

As the population continues to age and require more access to health care, the demand for advanced practice nurses will also increase. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the need for advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), including NPs, to grow by 45% from 2019 to 2029. This is exponentially faster than the average across all occupations and means that an additional 117,700 positions will need to be filled by 2029. The average annual wage for NPs was estimated at $111,840 in 2019. Other surveys found that WHNPs see an average of 18 patients per day.

Advocacy for Women’s Health Care Rights

Serving as the professional organization for WHNPs, the NPWH states that their mission is “to ensure the provision of quality primary and specialty healthcare to women of all ages by women’s health and women’s health focused nurse practitioners.” This group supports WHNPs nationally with continuing education credits and access to standards of care, while also advocating for their role. Their main goal regarding advocacy for women’s health care includes “protecting and promoting a woman’s right to make her own choices regarding her health within the context of her personal, religious, cultural, and family beliefs.” 

NPWH additionally advocates for WHNPs in terms of laws affecting reimbursement including Medicare, guidelines for screening cervical cancer, and increased access to care for women that aligns with their mission statement and goals. They repeatedly advocate for women—especially in light of COVID-19—to promote improved care during these turbulent times. 

Expansion of Scope of Practice

Scope of practice is determined on a state-by-state basis, with state and federal laws guiding practice authority for APRNs. In many states, scope of practice for APRNs occurs under the supervision and guidance of a physician. Over the last decade, there has been an ample amount of debate in legislation and policy regarding the expansion of scope of practice to allow WHNPs to fully practice using their skills and education to treat patients. 

As of 2019, there are 28 states in the United States (as well as the District of Columbia) that offer full practice authority to NPs (some after a set number of practice hours under a physician’s supervision). This step forward is critical as it improves access to care, streamlines efficiencies, reduces costs, and protects patients’ choice of health care provider. This advancement requires a reform of insurance companies to provide direct reimbursement to APRNs who practice under state law. As WHNPs gain more autonomy through full practice authority, they will be able to reach more women with fewer barriers to practice and care for them across the lifespan.

Increasing Rural Access to Health Care

Rural and underserved areas of the population still need access to basic health care, preventative screenings, and treatment of medical conditions. Up to 77% of rural counties are experiencing reduced access to health care due to provider shortages. Rapid advancements in telehealth medicine sparked by COVID-19 are just one piece of the puzzle in reaching patients who are miles from healthcare access. 

It’s essential for WHNPs to be available to patients in rural areas—especially in places such as Nebraska, where 13 of 93 counties do not have a single primary care provider. WHNPs and other APRNs can fill this large care gap for the people in these communities. 

The Overwhelming Need for WHNPs

An aging patient population and health care reform demonstrate an increased demand for more APRNs, and WHNPs are no exception. It is essential for women to have access to health care providers throughout their lifespan who are able to meet their needs. As a whole, the nursing industry will need to continue emphasizing the importance of APRNs in filling the advanced provider vacancies that will develop over the next decade. 

Offering strong financial and job security, WHNP roles focus on advocating for patient populations and participating in health care reform through engaging with politicians. Working toward policy change to encourage the expansion of scope of practice allows WHNPs to meet the needs of patients in rural and medically underserved areas who are in dire need of affordable access to care. With the pandemic accelerating technology advancements and legislation regarding healthcare, WHNPs will continue to step up and meet the needs of their patient populations. 

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Blyss Splane, BSN, RN, CNOR
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