Acute vs. chronic: FNP caring strategies for both illness types

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A doctor of nursing practice speaks with a female patient.

An estimated 148,000 family nurse practitioners work in private practices and health care centers across the country, according to research from the American Association of Nurse Practitioners. These highly educated medical professionals treat patients with acute and chronic conditions. Each of these pathologies comes with distinctive diagnostic and treatment demands.

How exactly do modern FNPs address these disparate illness types in practice? Here are some care strategies for acute and chronic illnesses commonly deployed by FNPs:

Understanding acute care

Acute conditions develop suddenly and progress rapidly. In most cases, these illnesses are linked to one cause or traumatic event, and respond to conventional treatment, normally resolving within days or weeks of diagnosis. Common infections such as acute sinusitis and pneumonia fall into this category, along with more serious infectious conditions like disseminated encephalomyelitis and acute respiratory distress syndrome, according to Navicent Health, based on a resource in 2018. Sudden physical trauma such as a bone fracture or heart attack are considered acute, as well. These illnesses often require timely diagnosis and treatment as they can quickly become life-threatening conditions, depending on patient health and age. For example, pneumonia kills more than 56,000 Americans annually, 85 percent of whom are 65 and older, the American Lung Association discovered in 2015.

FNPs are tasked with catching and treating these fast-moving illnesses before they become critical. Most treat patients with acute conditions within the confines of private practices, the AANP reported in 2018. Here, FNPs encounter families and individuals whom they regularly treat, diagnosing and treating acute conditions as they develop. This might involve prescribing antibiotics or other medications, something these advanced practice nurses can do in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, Contemporary Clinic found in 2017. In fact, 95 percent of FNPs write prescriptions as part of their normal duties, with the average FNP penning 23 scripts per day. In the event that patients do not respond favorably to medication, these medical professionals reach out to other providers with whom they collaborate to manage the care process.

However, most of this work unfolds in community-based settings, meaning few FNPs staff emergency units, which take in 28 percent of patients suffering from acute conditions in need of immediate attention, according to information from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services released in 2016. These areas are the province of emergency nurse practitioners, who possess similar yet unique skill sets.

Understanding chronic care

Chronic conditions develop over an extended period of time and progress slowly, usually requiring ongoing treatment. An estimated 60 percent of Americans suffer from chronic illnesses, which encompass everything from asthma to cancer, according to researchers for the RAND Corporation found in 2017. These conditions take an immense toll on patients and are the single leading driver of American health care costs, analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discovered.

Yet, many chronic illnesses develop as a result of lifestyle choices — tobacco use, poor nutrition and lack of exercise are some of the leading causes — and are therefore preventable. However, according to Kaiser Family Foundation data from 2018, about 70 percent of Americans believe these illnesses arise “due to factors and circumstances beyond a person’s control.”

Consequently, education is as important as medication when it comes to addressing chronic conditions. This is why FNPs who serve patients with chronic conditions and those in danger of developing them dedicate much of their time to advocating for healthy personal habits and offering preventive care. In fact, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, an independent, state-sponsored health care organization tasked with creating and promoting evidence-based treatments, called preventive care a “core competency” of modern advanced practice nursing in 2016 and advised FNPs to deploy sustainable, data-backed strategies that reduce the likelihood of chronic disease development. What does this work look like?

Most FNPs use clinical testing to establish baseline patient health measures and then collaborate with their charges to create customized care plans that might include both behavioral and pharmaceutical components. FNPs with patients who already have active chronic conditions normally develop more robust self-care regimens and collaborate with external specialists to line up key clinical treatments that might take place in external facilities. These nursing professionals also work with family members to cultivate strong support networks, Nursing Economics reported. In the end, these duties make FNPs a critical part of the fight to prevent the spread of chronic illnesses, which account for roughly 40 percent of all deaths that occur in the U.S., the CDC found in 2018.

Cultivating the ideal skill set

Just how do FNPs develop the clinical knowledge and skills they need to treat patients with acute and chronic illnesses? For most, the answer is graduate school, according to AANP data published in 2018. Almost 98 percent of practicing FNPs hold master’s degrees.

Bradley University’s online Master of Science in Nursing – Family Nurse Practitioner program offers a comprehensive instructional track to prepare registered nurses with bachelor’s or associate degrees for work in the FNP field. They offer a robust curriculum, beginning with a collection of core courses that cover everything from Advanced Pathophysiology and Evidence-Based Care to Leadership in the Health Care Delivery System and Legal and Ethical Issues in Health Care. The online MSN-FNP program at Bradley University also features five different Principles of FNP Practice courses, each of which has an accompanying preceptor-led clinical practicum where students can put their classroom knowledge to use treating patients with acute and chronic conditions, the elderly, women and children.

In the end, the online MSN-FNP program at Bradley University, which ranks among the top six Midwest Regional Universities, according to U.S. News and World Report in 2019, is a great option for aspiring advanced practice nurses who want to make an impact via effective short- and long-term medical interventions.

Contact Bradley University today to learn more about the online MSN-FNP program.

Recommended Readings:


Underserved populations: What nurses need to know


Bradley University

American Association of Nurse Practitioners

Navicent Health

American Lung Association

Contemporary Clinic

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services

RAND Corporation

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Kaiser Family Foundation

U.S. Preventive Services Task Force

Nursing Economics

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention