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Top 5 Differences Between Nurse Practitioners and Doctors

A nursing degree vs. a medical degree isn’t the only thing that separates nurse practitioners from doctors.

If you’ve been to the doctor’s office lately, it’s possible you didn’t see a doctor at all. In recent years, the American medical system has been turning to nurse practitioners to help meet rising healthcare demands.* In fact, employment of nurse practitioners is growing much faster than average and is expected to increase by 31% in the coming years.

Nurse practitioners and doctors may deliver similar types of healthcare to a variety of patients, and studies have shown that nurse practitioners’ quality of care is equivalent to that of physicians. However, the two professions are not identical. Here’s where they differ:

Top 5 Differences Between Nurse Practitioners and Doctors

Different Philosophical Focuses

Doctors, at their core, are scientists. They study diseases and how to cure them. Nurse practitioners, at their core, are healers. The vast majority begin their careers as registered nurses (RNs) and focus their care on wellness of the whole body and mind. That’s not to say doctors never take a more holistic approach to healing or that nurse practitioners don’t use scientifically tested treatments—there’s plenty of overlap—but their basic approach to patient care does differ at the philosophical level.

Different Paths Into the Professions

Physicians earn a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathy (DO) degree, which requires 4 years of medical school after earning a bachelor’s degree, typically in the sciences. This is generally an 8-year path followed by an internship and residency, which brings it to about 12 years.

Becoming a nurse practitioner also requires plenty of education, but the path typically begins at a nursing school with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN degree) or in an RN program with the intent to enroll in an RN to BSN program later. The next step is to earn a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree, after which you must pass a national nurse practitioner certification exam. All told, earning a master’s degree in nursing and becoming a nurse practitioner takes about 6 years of total education, although enrolling in an RN to MSN program can help you earn a master’s degree faster.

Different Ways to Earn a Degree

The vast majority of doctors earn their medical degrees at a traditional medical school where they attend classes in classrooms and spend long hours in hospital and clinical settings. Very few medical students hold down a job during their years at medical school.

Fortunately, for those who want to earn a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), there are other options. Thanks to online education, you can complete a master’s program in nursing without putting your entire life on hold. Through an online MSN program, you can complete much of your degree from home and on a schedule that can allow you to continue working. Most online MSN programs also incorporate several practicum courses into the curriculum. During these courses you practice under the direct supervision of a clinical preceptor in a setting specific to your chosen nurse practitioner track, such as an office or health department.

You can earn both your bachelor’s and master’s in nursing online, and some of the top nursing programs even allow you to complete an RN to BSN online or an RN to MSN online. Thanks to the nursing programs offered by top online universities, it’s more convenient—and thus more possible—than ever to earn the nursing degrees you need to become a nurse practitioner.

Different Specialties

While some doctors go into general practice, many doctors become highly specialized. Cardiovascular surgeons, for instance, only do surgery on the heart, while gastroenterologists only treat the digestive system. These specialties require doctors to complete one or more medical residencies after earning their medical degree. This adds 3 or more years to their training.

Nursing specializations tend to be broader than most physician specialties, putting nurse practitioners in an excellent position to provide primary care. Common MSN degree specializations include:

Different Regulations

Doctors are certified by the national board representing their specialty. These certifications require the doctor to pass an exam and recertify every 6–10 years by passing a new exam. They must also be licensed by their state to practice medicine.

Like doctors, all nurse practitioners must pass a national certification exam before beginning practice. However, other regulations for nurse practitioners vary across the states. Depending on your state, you will be subject to one of three types of practice environments:

  • In a full-practice state, you’ll be licensed to practice autonomously and can evaluate patients; diagnose, order, and interpret diagnostic tests; and initiate and manage treatments, including the prescribing of medications.
  • In a reduced-practice state, one or more elements of your practice—such as prescribing medications—will be limited. In general, your license won’t permit you to practice fully unless you are partnered with another medical entity, such as a hospital or clinic.
  • In a restricted-practice state, your license will restrict one or more elements of practice, requiring you to be supervised by a physician or to practice within a hospital environment.

You should review your state requirements to learn more about what nurse practitioners can and cannot do under their licenses. However, no matter which state you live in, it’s highly likely that nurse practitioners are in demand. The profession is an excellent career path for anyone who wants to care for patients.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering online Bachelor of Science in Nursing and Master of Science in Nursing degree programs. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.

*J. Iglehart, Meeting the Demand for Primary Care: Nurse Practitioners Answer the Call, National Institute for Health Care Management, on the Internet at

†Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2015–2016 Edition, on the Internet at

‡J. Stanik-Hutt et al., The Quality and Effectiveness of Care Provided by Nurse Practitioners, Journal for Nurse Practitioners, on the Internet at .

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,