Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician: What’s the Difference?

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NP checking patients blood pressure

Patients often find the line that separates the nurse practitioner and physician roles to be a little blurry, especially patients who receive their primary care from a nurse practitioner. After all, both these health care professionals use their skills to improve patient outcomes, and there are times when the fields’ respective skills overlap. Yet there is a distinct difference between nurse practitioners and physicians, from educational requirements, to career opportunities, and beyond.

Prospective students who are looking to pursue a career in medicine should know the factors that differentiate the role of a nurse practitioner vs. physician. Nursing students and health care professionals who are considering furthering their medical careers can earn an online post-master’s certificate.

Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician: Degree Requirements

One of the clearest differences between a nurse practitioner vs. physician consists of the educational requirements. Aspiring nurse practitioners must first become registered nurses (RNs). Once they possess a registered nurse license, they can enroll in an accredited graduate program to earn a master’s degree, which all nurse practitioners (NPs) hold.

The curriculum for a master’s program typically includes a mix of classroom-based education and clinical experience. In some cases, nurse practitioners choose to pursue a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). Earning an advanced nursing degree usually takes two to four years, depending on the type of degree.

Physicians, on the other hand, hold a doctoral degree from a medical school. Students must possess at least a bachelor’s degree to enroll in a doctoral program, which usually takes four years to complete. These highly competitive programs feature a mix of classroom education and building hands-on practical skills.

In addition to medical school, physicians are required to engage in internship and residency programs to gain real-world clinical experience. This process can last an additional three to seven years, depending on the physician’s specialty.

Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician: Similarities and Differences

Because nurse practitioners and physicians both operate from a position of patient care, there are some notable similarities between the two fields. For instance, individuals in both professions can examine patients and order tests. They also have the ability to counsel patients on health-related issues beyond the exam room, such as healthy living or at-home injury management.

Professionals in both fields require licenses and certifications to perform their roles, although the specific requirements may vary from state to state.

These similarities may make the positions look somewhat interchangeable; however, there are major differences between a nurse practitioner vs. physician. While a physician may be able to perform all the basic duties of a nurse practitioner, a nurse practitioner may not be able to assume all the duties of a physician. Physicians also often delegate the analysis of medical tests to assistants, where nurse practitioners usually perform the analysis themselves.

A physician typically works in one or more specialties, such as pediatrics, anesthesiology or surgery, for example. On the other hand, nurse practitioners specialize in one area, whether pediatrics, family medicine, psychiatric mental health, women’s health, or adult-gerontology.

Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician: Duties and Responsibilities

It is clear that nurse practitioners and physicians have some overlapping responsibilities when it comes to basic patient care. Sometimes, these similarities can cause friction between the two fields, although both strive to achieve optimal patient outcomes.

In some cases, nurse practitioners may have administrative duties, such as educating staff on new procedures or policies. Conversely, some physicians may enter fields beyond the realm of patient care, such as medical research or administration.

Because illness and injury can happen at any time, practitioners of both professions may be required to conduct their duties during nontraditional work hours. A nurse practitioner’s work may also be physically demanding, as NPs may be charged with occasionally lifting and moving patients.

Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician: Career Opportunities

One key distinction between the position of nurse practitioner vs. physician is the amount of career opportunities. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 47% of nurse practitioners work in the offices of physicians and 27% work in hospitals. These are also the two most common locations for physicians to work. However, while some nurse practitioners can serve as primary care providers, a fair number work under the direct supervision of physicians.

A nurse practitioner’s level of responsibility and degree of autonomy depend on the state in which they practice. Twenty-three states currently allow NPs to work independently, while 12 states require that some sort of supervision or management be in place for NPs to provide patient care. The other states deploy a hybrid of the two models.

Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician: Salary and Job Outlook

Nurse practitioners and physicians can expect to be relatively highly compensated. According to the BLS, the annual median salary for physicians in May 2019 was equal to or greater than $208,000. The annual median salary for nurse practitioners in the same time period was $115,800. These salaries can vary based on years of experience and the type of medical facility, but represent the national median for salaries.

The job outlook for nurse practitioners appears to be considerably better than the job outlook for physicians. The BLS projects the nurse practitioner field to experience 26% growth between 2018 and 2028, compared with 7% growth for physicians during the same period.

Earn an Advanced Degree

While the nurse practitioner and physician fields are both built on a foundation of providing the best patient care, there are significant differences in their approaches to achieving this goal. It is important that prospective students gain a solid understanding of these differences so they can pursue a career path that best suits their professional goals.

If you want to expand your capacity to provide clinical care and are considering a career as a nurse practitioner vs. physician, learn more about the online post-master’s certificates offered at Regis College.

Recommended Readings

Nurse Practitioner vs. MD: Exploring the Responsibilities

Understanding the Types of Nursing Degrees and Career Paths

What is Community-Based Nursing? A Look at a Key Care Philosophy


American Association of Nurse Practitioners, “State Practice Environment”

Career Builder, “3 differences between a Nurse Practitioner and a Physician Assistant”

Cedars Sinai, “Can I See a Nurse Practitioner Instead of a Doctor?”

Solv, “What is a Nurse Practitioner? Doctors vs. Nurse Practitioners”

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

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