What is an online Doctor of Nursing Practice program?

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A doctor of nursing practice speaks with a female patient.

Earning a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) puts nurses at the top of their profession. As the terminal degree in the clinical nursing field, the DNP prepares nurses for advanced practice positions, high-ranking administrative or executive roles, and can also be leveraged in patient advocacy and policy-making. Given this, the DNP has become the ultimate goal for many looking to further their careers in practice environments.

Currently, those who hold the DNP represent a small segment of the nursing population. The Institute of Medicine found in 2011 that while 13 percent of nurses held a graduate degree, like a Master of Science in Nursing, fewer than 1 percent had obtained a doctoral degree.

Increasing the number of doctoral degrees in the field has become a primary objective in health care to solve challenges like nursing shortages, and the effort has had some success: A 2015 survey from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) found enrollment in Doctor of Nursing Practice programs had increased 26.2 percent.

Another factor that has increased interest and participation in DNP programs is online learning. Most nurses who already hold an MSN and are seeking a doctorate are working full time and need a way to fit their studies into their schedules — a strength of online learning. Following is a more in-depth explanation of online nursing programs and what outcomes you can expect.

Online DNP learning objectives and expectations

The DNP is one of two terminal degrees in nursing, but differs from the Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing (Ph.D.) in that the DNP is used in clinical settings, as opposed to being research-focused. This makes it attractive to nurses who want to bolster their qualifications as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) or who want to build skills to enter upper management.

The AACN outlines the core competencies and outcomes each student in a Doctor of Nursing Practice online program should expect to gain upon completion of the degree. This includes:

  • Integrating nursing science with ethical, psychological, analytical and organizational knowledge
  • Developing and evaluating care delivery and cost-effectiveness of initiatives, while also applying principles of budgeting and finance
  • Using information technology to inform quality of care improvements and further tracking, analyzing and interpreting data and outcome results
  • Designing and maintaining systems of evaluation that monitor everything from care outcomes to how patients engage with consumer materials and technology
  • Grasping policy formulation and dissemination, and acting as an advocate and providing leadership to all levels
  • Ensuring effective communication and collaboration between departments
  • Analyzing cultural diversity and epidemiological, environmental and biostatistical records as a function of managing population health
  • Consistently demonstrating advanced knowledge of clinical judgment, accountability, evaluation and improving patient outcomes

Which online DNP is right for me?

There are a number of online DNP programs available to motivated nurses, but choosing one depends on what your ultimate goals are. For instance, at Bradley University, there are two online DNP programs for clinical nurses, aimed at different goals: the BSN-to-DNP Family Nurse Practitioner track and the MSN-to-DNP Leadership track.

The FNP track in our Doctor of Nursing Practice online program entails completing 83 credit hours (around 12 semesters) in courses like Advanced Pharmacology, Health Care Policy, Principles of FNP Practice, Statistical Procedures and Ethics in Advanced Practice Nursing. The coursework can be completed 100 percent online and on your own time. Students choose their own preceptors who supervise the students’ 750 hours of clinical practicum. Time to degree is around four years, including a clinical project, and is offered in fall, spring and summer. Upon completion, nurses can expect to have gained the capability to:

  • Grow their expertise and knowledge of advanced nursing theories and research practice
  • Develop, evaluate and improve new practices to deliver quality family health care
  • Translate research findings from the lab to the exam room
  • Use evidence-based knowledge in practice and in improving patient care and safety

The MSN-to-DNP Leadership track requires students to complete 39-plus credit hours (or nine semesters). The curriculum includes: Database Management Systems; Planning, Decision-making and Performance Measurement; Leadership in Advanced Practice Nursing; and Health Promotion in Populations.

Lessons can be completed entirely online and on a student’s own schedule, and the program generally takes three years to finish. Students also complete a DNP clinical project. Courses are offered in the fall, spring and summer, with objectives including:

  • Expanding knowledge of budgets, financial management and leadership theory
  • Developing the expertise needed to inform and shape health care policy
  • Mastering nursing personnel management and education
  • Becoming qualified for advanced leadership roles in administration, teaching, and patient care in roles like chief nursing officer, health care director or nurse executive

A doctor of nursing practice greets two hospital administrators.

What else do I need to know?

When making a decision as important as where to pursue your DNP, it’s important to take all factors into account — especially when considering enrolling in a Doctor of Nursing Practice program online. There might be differences between on-campus and off-campus programs at some institutions, but at Bradley University, online students can be confident their learning experience is as holistic, supportive and enriching as if they were on campus.

Whether enrolled in the online BSN-to-DNP FNP track or the MSN-to-DNP Leadership track, students can complete their clinicals locally and select their own site preceptor for each area of study. Bradley’s dedicated nursing faculty and staff will be there to answer any questions and guide you through your journey to a doctorate in nursing that can help you distinguish yourself in the field.

Whichever track interests you, be sure to choose an online Doctor of Nursing Practice program that suits your needs and can prepare you to pursue your career goals. Contact us today to learn more about admission requirements and other specific details about the program. An enrollment advisor is available to answer any questions you may have about the Bradley DNP online program.

Recommended Readings:

What are the benefits of an online FNP program?

What are the benefits of an online DNP?


The National Academies

Journal of Professional Nursing