What Is the Difference Between a Nurse Practitioner and a Doctor?

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Nurse helping elderly patient

As the shortage of doctors continues to grow across the country, nurse practitioners (NPs) are likely to be a more integral part of the health care landscape. The idea of becoming a nurse practitioner is an enticing one for students, but before embarking on this career path, it’s imperative they know how to answer the question, what is the difference between a nurse practitioner and a doctor?

Similarities and Differences in the Respective Roles

Both nurse practitioners and doctors are charged with providing quality health care that improves patient outcomes. There are some similarities in how they each achieve this. For instance, both NPs and doctors can record patients’ medical histories and symptoms and diagnose health issues. These professionals can also work together to deliver patient care.

But there is one vital difference between nurse practitioners and physicians. The duties of NPs revolve around providing patient primary care, whereas the duties of physicians encompass complex patient diagnoses, specialty care, and treatments. The NPs’ focus on patient primary care can make them the patients’ best source of information about wellness issues like healthy eating, exercise, and smoking cessation programs.

The generalized nature of the position can lead NPs to wear many different hats. For example, they could be called upon to conduct research on health care–related issues and to take on administrative or educational roles. NPs might also teach staff about new patient care procedures or changing regulatory policies.

The Different Educational Paths

Advanced degrees are required to become both nurse practitioners and doctors. NPs and doctors must be licensed, and each field has different licensing exams, which cannot be taken until educational requirements are met. These licenses are specific to the state where they are obtained, although they might cover multiple states if the other state’s minimum standards are met.

Certification is required for NPs and is often a requirement to obtain a state license. In fact, licensing can get complex for an NP. In some states, NPs must obtain a registered nursing license, complete an accredited graduate-level program, and pass a national certification exam. Doctors, on the other hand, aren’t required to obtain certification, but doing so may improve their chances for employment.

The educational requirements for these two professions are also vastly different. The road to becoming a physician is arduous, as they typically need a bachelor’s degree, a medical school degree, and several years of internship and residency programs. In total, this path of study can last anywhere from 11 to 15 years, depending on the physician’s specialty.

The road to becoming an NP is not as long. They will need to obtain a bachelor’s and master’s degree, a process that takes roughly half the time it takes for a doctor to complete his or her requirements. Even if an NP decides to pursue the most advanced degree, a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), the educational requirements will not be as extensive as a physician’s requirements.

Overlapping Skill Sets

Nurse practitioners and physicians require specific, finely tuned skills for success. Those in both fields must be able to think on their feet and have solid communication skills that allow them to relay vital information in critical situations. The ability to express compassion for patients is also essential.

That’s not to say there aren’t differences between nurse practitioners and doctors when it comes to necessary skills. Because NPs can function as administrators as well as nurses, they must also have solid leadership and interpersonal skills. This acumen can foster a strong sense of trust with patients and fellow clinical workers, which can play a key role in improving patient outcomes.

Differences in Job Outlook

When assessing the differences between nurse practitioners and doctors, perhaps the largest contrast can be found in their respective employment outlooks. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the NP field is poised to grow 31 percent from 2016 to 2026, compared to 13 percent growth for doctors in that same time frame. There are several reasons for this, including a substantial projected increase in the number of elderly patients, which then sets up the potential for steady job prospects for NPs.

Physicians do get paid more. The BLS indicates their 2017 median pay was $208,000 per year, while the 2017 median pay for NPs was about $111,000 per year, which, while lower than doctors, is still robust. Nurse practitioners are seen as having the opportunity to make a positive impact on patient care on a more personal level, which may be priceless to some.

Make a Big Difference

Nurse practitioners and doctors are key to bringing about improved patient outcomes in the high-demand world of health care. NPs have a unique, multifaceted role to play that can make a positive impact on health care, from providing personal patient guidance to leading staff in a clinical setting. Ultimately, this allows NPs to be at the forefront of delivering improved, high-quality health care.

Learn More

Explore a career as a nurse practitioner along with the specialization opportunities in the field. Regis College offers an online Master of Science in Nursing for nurse practitioners to pursue their interests as advanced practice providers.

Recommended Reading:

Nurse vs. Nurse Practitioner

The Role of the Nurse Practitioner in Women’s Health

How Psychiatric Nursing is Fighting the Mental Health Stigma


U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Physicians and Surgeons

American Association of Nurse Practitioners

The National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties

National Certification Corporation

American Nurses Credentialing Center

Regis College, Online Master of Science in Nursing – Family Nurse Practitioner

Regis College, Online Master of Science in Nursing – Nurse Practitioner