Nurse Practitioner vs. MD: Exploring the Responsibilities

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A nurse practitioner examines a young patient.

Nurse practitioners contribute to the quality and efficiency of health care delivery in a variety of settings. Whether coordinating clinical visits for a chronically ill patient or conducting diagnostic screenings for children at schools, a nurse practitioner (NP) maintains a holistic view of the patient to make sure his or her needs are met.

While physicians often take the lead in providing primary or specialty care services, NPs are increasingly taking on greater responsibilities by serving as primary care providers and specialists. Pursuing an advanced nursing education, such as an online Master of Science in Nursing degree, can help nurses assume a more significant role in driving change in the health care arena.

The Importance of Skilled NPs and Physicians

Improving efficiency is a top priority in today’s health care environment. This means extending preventive care services, improving communication between health care providers, and better monitoring patients with chronic conditions, with the end goal of reducing medical errors and costly hospitalizations. Nurse practitioners and MDs play vital roles in enhancing patient care coordination to drive efficiencies without sacrificing quality.

An NP or physician acting as the primary care provider in a medical facility has the responsibility of communicating goals and metrics to staff members and ensuring that patients’ needs are met. Providers must coordinate data with other care providers, often through the use of electronic health records, and make sure that patients have access to records and communication channels via patient portals. This helps reduce miscommunications, avoid duplicate services, and lower the chances of adverse events.

NPs and physicians can work together to achieve strategic health goals through comanagement relationships, which are most effective when they include mutual trust and respect, effective communication, and a shared care philosophy, according to Clinical Advisor. These relationships can result in greater efficiencies and cost savings; for instance, an MD might be able to reduce patient wait times by delegating initial patient assessments to NPs. When working in concert with an MD or multiple MDs, as opposed to operating as the chief practitioner, an NP may have fewer administrative responsibilities and an increased ability to interact with and form stronger bonds with patients.

Regardless of the health setting, providing optimal care to the patient remains the ultimate goal. Each health professional has a unique care strategy that can bring about better outcomes for both the patient and the health care facility.

Comparing Roles: NP vs. MD

What are the responsibilities of an NP vs. an MD? Both physicians and nurse practitioners have important positions in health care. While legislative limitations in some states may reduce the scope of tasks performed by an NP, duties typically include:

  • Recording medical histories
  • Performing physical or mental exams
  • Administering diagnostic tests
  • Diagnosing conditions
  • Determining treatment plans
  • Writing prescriptions
  • Managing care plans for patients with chronic illnesses
  • Counseling patients on healthy lifestyles

An MD’s job duties include the above tasks and may also include reviewing test results, performing surgeries, administering drugs and other direct treatments, ordering hospitalizations, and delivering babies. Physicians also delegate tasks to staff members and manage practice finances and operating plans. They primarily work in hospital or physician practice settings. NPs also mainly work in physician office or hospital settings, but might also serve in schools, birthing centers, or patients’ homes.

Primary Care Settings

NPs focus on preventive care by identifying new health concerns, keeping tabs on chronic conditions, and counseling patients on healthy lifestyles. Their concentration on holistic health often gives NPs an opportunity to be on the front lines of primary care, allowing them to develop targeted care strategies for specific patients or communities. While physicians also work to provide proactive services, high patient demand often requires MDs to practice in a reactive fashion, responding when a medical problem comes to light. Studies have shown that primary care NPs can serve to reduce medical costs in certain patient populations by helping patients avoid emergency and inpatient services.

In some states, NPs are required to operate under the supervision of a physician or in collaboration with a physician. State laws may restrict an NP’s ability to write prescriptions and perform other specific tasks without physician approval. Other states allow NPs to operate independent practices. With the growing shortage of physicians in some areas, and increased awareness of NPs’ holistic care skills, more states are moving to expand the role of NPs in primary care settings.

Specialized Medical Roles

Specializations influence NP and MD roles in different ways. NPs are increasingly moving into specialized nursing roles, such as adult-geriatric nurse practitioner (AGNP), family nurse practitioner (FNP), or positions focusing on pediatrics, mental health, or women’s health. These specializations come with different responsibilities such as providing palliative care, offering gynecological services, or monitoring child development milestones.

Doctor specializations are often focused on surgical services but may also include caring for children with serious illnesses such as cancer (pediatric oncologist), women with reproductive or hormonal problems (obstetrician/gynecologist), patients with internal organ dysfunctions (general internist), or mental health patients requiring psychotherapy (psychiatrist).

The Benefits of Becoming a Nurse Practitioner

NPs can impact patient outcomes and satisfaction by serving as advocates for patients. They enact proactive patient care regimens by educating patients on healthy lifestyles, screening for health issues, and making sure that patients stick to treatment programs. Regular preventive care checkups and condition monitoring programs can help reduce expensive hospitalizations for chronically ill patients. In rural areas where physicians are in short supply, NPs offer necessary medical treatment to at-risk communities.

Pursuing an NP career helps nurses attain leadership roles and presents opportunities for specialization. An advanced practice nurse must gain an education such as a master’s degree in a health-related field, but compared to MDs, NPs have fewer educational and residency requirements, resulting in lower educational costs and the ability to launch a career faster.

Graduate-level nursing programs, such as Regis College’s online Master of Science in Nursing, enable students to deepen their knowledge of key concepts such as nursing theory, nursing leadership, and health policy. The Regis program’s curriculum prepares NPs to gain certification and take on authoritative roles in primary care and specialty fields. With flexible scheduling, a student can achieve a degree in as few as 28 to 36 months.

Pursue a Career as a Nurse Practitioner

Nurses looking to increase their autonomy and achieve their professional goals should consider pursuing an advanced nursing education. By serving as primary care providers and specialists both independently and alongside physicians, NPs fulfill a vital role in the delivery of health care in the U.S. Discover more about how Regis College’s online Master of Science in Nursing can help students become effective nurse leaders and improve health care outcomes.

Recommended Readings
The Future of Health Care: Finding Key Patient Engagement Solutions
Nursing in a Clinic vs. Hospital Setting: What’s the Difference?
What Kind of Nurse Should I Be? Examining Advanced Practice Nursing Paths

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, Nurse Practitioner Prescriptive Privilege
Clinical Advisor, “A Model for Nurse Practitioner-Physician Comanagement”
Elation Health, How to Improve Primary Care Efficiency and Quality
Forbes, “Doctoring the Doctor Shortage”
Health Affairs, “Impact of Physicians, Nurse Practitioners, and Physician Assistants on Utilization and Costs for Complex Patients”
Houston Chronicle, “What Is the Advantage of Becoming a Nurse Practitioner?”
Regis College, Online Master of Science in Nursing
Scope of Practice Policy, Nurse Practitioners Overview
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Physicians and Surgeons