In the past, and even continuing into the present day, low-income women and children have encountered barriers in accessing healthcare. Fifty years ago, to help overcome these barriers, Loretta Ford, RN, and Henry Silver, MD, created the first nurse practitioner (NP) program at the University of Colorado; it was there, in 1965, that the NP role first emerged. This certificate education program, which built on the knowledge and skills of the public health nurse, prepared pediatric NPs (PNPs) to work in collaboration with physicians to care for underserved low-income pediatric populations.1
Inspired by the success of the PNP role, innovative nurses and physicians expanded the registered nurse role to include provision of care to underserved pregnant women. The evolution of the obstetric/gynecologic (OB/GYN) nurse’s role from maternity care to women’s healthcare throughout the lifespan, in what would become an advanced practice role, drove the need for uniform standards for education and practice.
To serve this need, the first guidelines, Obstetric-Gynecologic Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner: Role Definition, Role Description, and Guidelines for Educational Development, were published in 1979. These guidelines, updated in 1984 and 1990, remained in effect until 1996. Reflecting the spirit of cooperation inherent in women’s healthcare, the National Association of Nurse Practitioners in Women’s Health (NPWH) and the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses (AWHONN) collaborated to develop and publish Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner: Guidelines for Practice and Education (hereafter called the Guidelines) in 1996. This 4th edition and two subsequent editions have delineated the emerging skills and competencies necessary for WHNPs to meet women’s healthcare needs.
The 7th edition of the Guidelines
The evolving national healthcare scene, the changing policies/guidelines affecting NP education and practice, and multiple emerging population health concerns have driven the need for periodic comprehensive reviews and revisions of the Guidelines. The 7th edition of the Guidelines provides a clarification of the WHNP role, without expanding the role.1 This edition articulates and differentiates the women’s health population focus by:
• Strengthening language regarding the WHNP’s role in primary care, and;
• Describing key areas of specialty practice consistent with WHNP education and identified competencies, including high-risk pregnancy, infertility, urogynecology, gynecologic oncology, menopause, and gynecologic office-based procedures.
The revision process for the Guidelines
In April 2013, a joint NPWH/AWHONN task force of WHNPs, with equal representation from the two associations, was convened to revise the Guidelines under the leadership of a chairperson with dual NPWH/AWHONN membership. Task force members were selected for their knowledge and experience in women’s health, nursing education, and clinical practice. In addition, the National Certification Corporation (NCC), the only nationally recognized certifying body for WHNPs, was invited to name a representative to participate on the task force.
Over the course of 18 months, the task force took steps to ensure that the updated document would reflect not only current WHNP practice but also the anticipated WHNP role of the future. First, the task force reviewed key documents guiding NP practice and education, as well as women’s healthcare, to ensure alignment. Upon completion of the draft document, key WHNP stakeholders were asked to review the document and provide comments to strengthen it. Following this review, NPs in other population foci, along with representatives from the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, the Gerontological Advanced Practice Nurses Association, the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners, and the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties (NONPF), participated in a second review. The second review hinged on these questions:
• Do these Guidelines align with key NP guidance documents regarding NP practice and education?
• When, and for what services, would you refer to a WHNP?
• Is the reason that you would refer to a WHNP adequately reflected in the Guidelines document?
All comments were reviewed by the task force and incorporated into the document.
During development of the Guidelines, all NCC-certified WHNPs were invited to complete a survey regarding their current practice, including work setting, skills utilized in practice, content learned in WHNP programs, and content and skill building in the workplace. Survey results indicated that approximately 82% of WHNPs practice in primary care settings, including OB/GYN and family practice offices, family planning clinics, governmental health departments, college health departments, sexually transmitted disease clinics, and prenatal care clinics.2 The other respondents reported working in specialty and subspecialty practices such as gynecologic oncology, urogynecology, infertility, and maternal–fetal medicine. The survey results, combined with input from non-WHNP colleagues, underscored the broad reach of WHNP practice.
Revisions include alignment with Licensure, Accreditation, Certification & Education (LACE), NONPF NP Core Competencies, American Association of Colleges of Nursing MSN and DNP Essentials, other NP population focus guidelines, and the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM’s) The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health, as well as key documents pertaining to women’s health.
Key differences from prior editions
The 7th edition of the Guidelines represents a comprehensive view of WHNP practice today, emphasizing a lifespan approach to care extending from menarche through senescence. Written within the framework of the LACE consensus model for advanced practice nursing and consistent with the IOM’s groundbreaking report on the future of nursing, the Guidelines, compared with earlier editions, reflect a broader description of WHNP assessment, diagnostic, and treatment activities within the context of general competencies, gynecology, male sexual and reproductive healthcare (SRH), nongynecologic primary care, and obstetrics. WHNP education concepts reflect the practice competencies necessary to partner with women to meet their healthcare needs. The Guidelines elaborate on the WHNP role in male SRH, take a gender-focused approach to women’s health concerns, and recognize WHNPs’ expertise in performing selected office-based procedures. In further clarifying the components of WHNP practice, the Guidelines reflect WHNPs’ expertise and value as care providers, leaders, and consultants in the areas of women’s health and male SRH.
The writing team and reviewers for the Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner: Guidelines for Practice and Education, 7th Edition spent countless hours bringing this final document to fruition. Guideline development and publication by NPWH and AWHONN included a review of interdisciplinary documents and input from family NP, adult-gerontology NP, PNP, and faculty colleagues in addition to a team of WHNPs. This multifaceted approach exemplifies the collaborative nature of women’s healthcare providers as partners with their female patients in promoting health, preventing disease, and optimizing health outcomes.
Susan Kendig is a teaching professor and WHNP Emphasis Area Coordinator at the University of Missouri-St. Louis; a consultant at Health Policy Advantage, LLC, in St. Louis, Missouri; and Director of Policy for the National Association of Nurse Practitioners in Women’s Health (NPWH). She can be reached at 314-629-2372 or at email@example.com.
1. National Association of Nurse Practitioners in Women’s Health/ Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses. Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner: Guidelines for Practice and Education, 7th Edition. Washington, DC: NPWH/AWHONN; 2014.
2. Kelsey B and the National Association of Nurse Practitioners in Women’s Health. NPWH Women’s Health NP Role and Competencies Survey. 2013. Unpublished data.