Why Women’s Health Nurse Practitioners Are Healthcare Heroes

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, so we’re focusing on women’s health. And we’re not the only ones — recent decades have seen the rise of a specific type of advanced-practice clinician: the women’s health nurse practitioner (WHNP).

These specialized, highly trained professionals practice all over the country, in both urban and rural areas, in order to meet women’s health challenges.

What Does a Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner Do?

Nurses for a Healthier Tomorrow estimates that between 12,000 and 15,000 WHNPs currently practice in the U.S. These NPs, with their advanced education and clinical experience, provide primary care (which can include prenatal visits, chronic diseases, and perimenopause- and menopause-related issues) for women. Some also subspecialize in areas important to women’s health, such as cardiology, infertility, endocrinology, and high-risk obstetrics.

WHNPs practice in physicians’ offices, outpatient facilities, long-term care facilities, urban and rural hospitals, community health centers (such as public health departments), and school and university settings — basically, any place they are needed to help meet women’s healthcare needs.

Why WHNPs Are So Important

Women face many risks throughout their lives, many of which are related to reproductive health. ADVANCE Healthcare Network notes that there are more perinatal risks to women now than in the recent past: The United States ranks 6th among the 10 countries responsible for 60 percent of the world’s premature births, and maternal mortality has nearly doubled since 1990. Numbers such as these show the need for greater access to and education about prenatal and pregnancy healthcare.

Women also shoulder the effects of our aging society in two important ways. They tend to live longer, which means they are more vulnerable to developing age-related conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. According to the National Council of State Legislatures (NCSL), two-thirds of adults over age 65 who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease are women. And the majority of unpaid family caregivers who take care of elderly relatives? Also women.

Finally, the NCSL says that women are more likely than men to develop chronic conditions — 38 percent versus 30 percent, respectively. For American women, heart disease remains the leading cause of death, while cancer (in all forms) is responsible for 250,000 deaths annually. Osteoporosis affects 8 million women over the age of 50 and leads to around 2 million fractures a year, resulting in costs around $19 billion.

The Enormous Impact of Improving Healthcare Access for Women

It’s obvious that healthcare professionals face immense challenges while trying to improve women’s health. If the growing number of nurse practitioners can help, then there will be a huge net gain — not only for women’s health, but for families and overall communities.

ADVANCE Healthcare Network points out that according to numbers alone, focusing on women’s health can have a huge effect on community health in general. Women make up more than half of the U.S. population, and beyond numbers, they are also an important group of healthcare consumers — they make decisions not only for themselves, but also for their children, spouses, and elderly parents.

Susan Rawlins, RN, MS, WHNP-BC, director of education for the National Association of Nurse Practitioners in Women’s Health, notes that, “As women’s health nurse practitioners, we can really help the whole family be healthier by giving the women the resources they need to make informed decisions.”

Women face a variety of healthcare issues at many points during their lives. These challenges have social and economic effects, and they can threaten the health of communities throughout the country. The good news, however, is that the versatile and holistic care of WHNPs can improve the health of women, their families, and their communities.