Both nurse practitioners and doctors examine patients, obtain medical histories, and perform diagnostic tests. Like doctors, nurse practitioners can serve as primary care providers. However, although nurse practitioners have more clinical independence and authority than other types of nurses, becoming a doctor requires significantly more schooling than becoming a nurse practitioner and their approaches to care will vary. Learn more about the differences between a nurse practitioner vs. doctor to see which career path is right for you.
Is a Nurse Practitioner a Doctor?
Nurse practitioners are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs). A nurse practitioner is not a doctor but shares many of the same responsibilities. Nurse practitioners can work independently or as part of a healthcare team at physicians’ offices, hospitals, outpatient care centers, colleges and universities, and home healthcare services.
Nurse Practitioner Responsibilities
The responsibilities of NPs might include:
- Managing acute and chronic medical conditions
- Performing physical examinations
- Ordering diagnostic tests and treatments
- Taking comprehensive medical histories
- Making referrals
- Recommending and providing treatment
- Prescribing medication (in most states)
Areas of specialization that nurse practitioners can pursue include adult-gerontology acute care, public health nursing, family nursing, nurse midwifery, pediatric nursing, psychiatric nursing, and occupational and environmental health nursing. Nurse practitioners can also teach and counsel individuals, families, and groups. Oftentimes, the work of a nurse practitioner is heavily focused on health promotion and disease prevention.
Differences Between Nurse Practitioners and Doctors
Doctors differ from nurse practitioners in their level of education, required certification, certain job responsibilities, approach to care, and salary.
Currently, in order to become a nurse practitioner, you must complete two years of full-time study beyond a bachelor’s degree by pursuing a master’s degree in nursing. By 2015, aspiring nurse practitioners will be required to purse a doctoral degree, which can be three to five years of study. Nurses that have earned their doctorate may be called doctor, but this designation is academic rather than medical.
Doctors are in school for longer—after earning their bachelor’s degree, they have to complete four years of medical school in order to earn a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) credential. Doctors then must pursue three to eight years of internship and residency, depending on their area of specialty.
Nurse practitioners must maintain a current registered nurse (RN) license and obtain national certification through passing the National Council Licensure Examination. Nurse practitioners must also receive additional national certification in specialties, such as family health, pediatrics, neonatology, gerontology, women’s health, psychiatry and mental health, acute care, and adult health, among others, and then apply for an APRN license through their state.
Physicians must be licensed in their state and pass a national standardized licensure examination, such as the US Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) for MDs, and the the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX-USA) for DOs. MDs and Dos can also pursue specialty certification through the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) or the American Osteopathic Association (AOA).
Although nurse practitioners share about 80% to 90% of the responsibilities of a physician, in some states, nurse practitioners may be required to work under the supervision of a doctor. Additionally, nurse practitioners are also not allowed to prescribe medicine in some states.
Approach to Care
With an emphasis on preventive care and overall health and wellness, nurse practitioners often care for patients in all aspects of their lives. However, doctors tend to concentrate on the science of medicine in order to gain expert knowledge in their field. The work of doctors will typically emphasize the study and treatment of disease rather than strictly patient care.
Doctors earn more than nurse practitioners. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, doctors are among the highest paid workers in the US and earned a median annual wage equal to or greater than $187,199 in 2012, whereas the median annual wage of nurse practitioners was $89,960.
Job Outlook for NPs and MDs
Many healthcare experts believe that employing more nurse practitioners is the solution to the growing shortage of primary care providers. The employment of nurse practitioners and physicians are both supposed to grow at a faster than average rate through 2022, due to the aging population.
Doctor positions should increase by 18% and nursing positions should increase by 19%. Employment will likely shift from hospitals to outpatient care facilities in order to cut costs. Healthcare providers will be in higher-demand in underserved regions, like rural areas and inner-city areas.
Deciding on Becoming a Nurse Practitioner or Doctor
After exploring the differences between a nurse practitioner vs. a doctor, it should be possible to determine which career path aligns with your goals. If you believe in taking a holistic approach to health that emphasizes wellness and preventive care, a career as a nurse practitioner may be right for you. If you are eager to take on more responsibilities and challenges than a nurse practitioner, are interested in the diagnosis and treatment of disease, and are willing to commit to 11 to 16 years of schooling, then becoming a doctor may be a better choice.