MSN-DNP Programs for MSN-Prepared APRNs and Other Nurses

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The traditional Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program is often referred to as an MSN-to-DNP or post-master’s DNP program, as it admits RNs and APRNs that already possess a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). This program title is used to distinguish these post-master’s degree programs from the post-bachelor’s BSN-DNP programs that have become very popular.

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Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP)-prepared nurses transform healthcare by designing, evaluating, and continuously improving processes and the environment in which care is delivered—and their value in today’s healthcare environment cannot be overestimated.

Nurses prepared at the doctoral level are able to critique and improve nursing practice with the ultimate goal of addressing the predominant healthcare dilemmas of the future:

  • A need for health promotion and disease prevention
  • Chronic illness management in all ages
  • Health disparities associated with socioeconomic dislocations
  • Problems associated with normal human development, particularly aging

Choosing an MSN-to-DNP Focus

All MSN-DNP programs in the U.S. earn accreditation through the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN). Accredited programs offer students the ability to focus their program on at least one of the following:

  • An advanced practice nursing direct care focus
  • An aggregate/systems/organizational focus

Advanced Practice Direct Care Focus

Depending on the program’s offerings, students choosing a direct care advanced practice nursing role may focus their MSN-DNP on one of the advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) roles (certified nurse-midwife (CNM), nurse practitioner (NP), certified nurse-midwife (CNM), clinical nurse specialist (CNS)) and one of the recognized patient population foci (family-individual across the lifespan; adult-gerontology primary or acute care; neonatal; women’s health; psychiatric-mental health).

MSN-prepared nurses choosing to complete a DNP program in an APRN role would most often already possess national certification in the corresponding APRN role and population focus. DNP programs can also serve to provide the education necessary for APRNs to add an additional patient population focus or specialty.

Students interested in focusing their MSN-DNP program on an APRN role and population focus who do not already possess national certification may still do so (in select programs), provided they have already completed the necessary graduate-level courses in:

  • Health/physical assessment
  • Physiology/pathophysiology across the lifespan
  • Pharmacology

Courses are expected to meet the current criteria for content based on the APRN’s Consensus Model for APRN Regulation.

Aggregate/Systems/Organizational Focus

Unlike an APRN specialization that focuses on direct patient care, areas of specialization for programs with an aggregate/systems/organizational specialization prepare students for careers in:

  • Administration
  • Healthcare policy
  • Informatics
  • Information systems

While most programs require applicants of MSN-DNP programs to possess an MSN related to their chosen DNP focus, some institutions accept nurses that possess a business, informatics, or healthcare master’s degree, such as an MBA, MPH, MSHA, MMHC, etc. provided the student is pursuing a DNP with an aggregate/systems/organizational specialization.

Meeting MSN-to-DNP Admission Requirements

In addition to possessing an MSN from an accredited college or university, candidates for MSN-DNP programs must possess:

  • A registered nurse (RN) license
  • Current national certification through a national certifying body in an APRN role and population focus (if applicable)
  • A current resume or CV detailing their nursing/professional experience
  • Undergraduate/graduate transcripts showing a competitive GPA
  • Verification of completed supervised clinical hours from their MSN program
  • Professional references detailing the candidate’s academic and nursing leadership potential
  • Minimum GRE scores

Many programs also require students to attend an interview and submit a personal statement listing their professional goals.

Choosing an Appropriate Delivery Method/Program Format

Although many institutions offer their MSN-DNP programs through a campus-based, full-time format, perhaps just as many now offer these programs in a partially or fully online format, thereby accommodating working professionals looking for a more flexible option.

Online MSN-DNP programs allow MSN-prepared nurses to complete the didactic components of the DNP program through online study, requiring just one or two campus-based immersion experiences throughout the course of the program. Immersion experiences provide students with the opportunity to meet faculty and engage in academic experiences with their peers.

Online DNP programs provide students with a faculty advisor who supports them throughout their program and helps them schedule their related clinical experiences, usually with partner clinical sites close to home.

In addition to full-time MSN-DNP programs, a number of institutions offer these programs in part-time or accelerated formats. While full-time programs take about two years to complete, part-time programs take about three years and accelerated programs take about one year.

MSN-to-DNP Program Curriculum Requirements: Course Content and Clinical Practice Hours

An MSN-DNP program consists of the following components:

  • DNP Essential Curriculum: Foundational outcome competencies identified by the AACN as essential for all graduates of DNP programs
  • Specialty Competencies/Content Curriculum: Didactic and practice requirements matching with the chosen DNP specialty
  • Practice Experiences: Related directly to the DNP Essentials and the chosen DNP specialty
  • Final Project: Designed to reflect the student’s accumulation of knowledge in a particular area of nursing practice

DNP Essential Curriculum

The foundational outcome competencies of a DNP program consist of 8 Essentials:

  • Essential I: Scientific Underpinning for Practice
  • Essential II: Organizational and Systems Leadership for Quality Improvement and Systems Thinking
  • Essential III: Clinical Scholarship and Analytical Methods for Evidence-Based Practice
  • Essential IV: Information Systems/Technology and Patient Care Technology for the Improvement and Transformation of Health Care  
  • Essential V: Health Care Policy for Advocacy in Health Care  
  • Essential VI: Interprofessional Collaboration for Improving Patient and Population Health Outcomes
  • Essential VII: Clinical Prevention and Population Health for Improving the Nation’s Health
  • Essential VIII: Advanced Nursing Practice  

Specialty Competencies/Content Curriculum

The specialty competencies/content of a DNP correspond directly to the chosen DNP specialty.

DNP programs with an APRN specialization must contain three, separate courses in:

  • Advanced health/physical assessment
  • Advanced physiology/pathophysiology
  • Advanced pharmacology

DNP programs with an aggregate/systems/organizational focus must include study in one or more of the following areas:

  • Advanced organizational techniques
  • Systems techniques
  • Community system techniques

National specialty nursing organizations always dictate specialty competencies/content in a DNP program.

Practice Experiences

All DNP programs must consist of at least 1,000 practice hours as part of a supervised program; however, 500 of those hours may be transferred from the student’s MSN program in most cases. According to the AACN, all practice experiences should be related to the DNP Essentials and the student’s chosen DNP specialty.

Final DNP Project

Final MSN-DNP projects are meant to represent the culmination of a student’s work. Just a few of the final DNP projects students may pursue as part of their MSN-DNP program include:

  • Practice portfolio
  • Consulting project
  • Pilot study
  • Research utilization project
  • Quality improvement project
  • Program evaluation

Samples of MSN-DNP Coursework

Some of the courses completed as part of an MSN-DNP program often include:

  • Scientific underpinnings for practice
  • Evidence-based practice, quality, and safety
  • Applied epidemiology and biostatistics in healthcare
  • Framework for leadership and interprofessional collaboration
  • Advanced health policy and advocacy
  • Healthcare economics and finance
  • Informatics in healthcare delivery
  • Statistics in health science
  • Legal and ethical environment

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