Nurse vs. Nurse Practitioner

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Nurse practitioner’s work equipment

With the current nationwide shortage of qualified nursing staff, you may be considering a career in nursing. A comparison of nurse vs. nurse practitioner options may assist you in your career choice.

A nurse practitioner is required to have a higher level of education than a registered nurse. Nurse practitioners also carry more responsibility than registered nurses, and in most instances can practice with more autonomy.

Another major difference between a nurse and a nurse practitioner is that a nurse practitioner is authorized to prescribe medications, while a registered nurse is not.

Let’s take a closer look at the two professions.

Requirements to Practice


Accreditation for nursing educational programs is administered by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE), and by the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN).

  • Registered Nurse (RN)

Student nurses must have a minimum of an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) to qualify as a registered nurse. This degree program takes two years of study at an accredited nursing school or college. However, the majority of nursing employers require RNs to have a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN).

Typically, a bachelor’s degree in nursing involves completion of a four-year program offered at a college or university. Many educational institutions offer an RN to BSN conversion program, which requires a further two years of study after completion of an ADN.

  • Nurse Practitioner (NP)

Nurses are required to have a master’s degree in nursing to practice as an NP. Only RNs with a bachelor’s degree in nursing and several years of applicable experience are eligible to enroll in a master’s program. However, some universities and colleges offer an accelerated program that enables RNs with an ADN qualification to obtain both bachelor’s and master’s degrees through one program.

There are different master’s programs offered by various institutions. The most popular is a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN). Other options are a Master of Nursing (MN), Master of Science (MS) with a major in nursing, and a Master of Arts (MA) with a nursing major.

Students who enroll in an NP program may specialize in one of six categories of care that focus on different sectors of the patient population. These include neonatal, pediatrics, family, adult-gerontology, women’s health, and psychiatric-mental health.

Typical Curricula

  • Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

Typically, students in this program will take the following courses:

  • Introduction to Nursing
  • Pathophysiology
  • Human Anatomy
  • Health Assessment
  • Mental Health Nursing
  • Pharmacology
  • Adult Care
  • Maternity Nursing
  • Care of Infants, Children and Youth
  • Nursing Research
  • Community and Family Health
  • Leadership and Management
  • Ethics, Legal and Genetic Issues
  • Sociology
  • Statistics

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

In addition to courses that are specific to a student’s chosen clinical specialty, a typical curriculum for an MSN degree includes the following core courses:

  • Advanced Pathophysiology
  • Applied Epidemiology and Biostatistics in Health Care
  • Advanced Physical and Clinical Assessment
  • Advanced Pharmacology
  • Advance Care Management
  • Health Care Economics and Finance
  • Leadership and Inter-professional Collaboration
  • Health Policy and Advocacy
  • Informatics in Health Care Delivery
  • Health Promotion and Disease Prevention
  • Statistics

Nurse vs. Nurse Practitioner Certification

  • Registered Nurse (RN)

After graduation, RNs must pass the National Council Licensure Examination and then register with the board of nursing in the state where they intend to work. State boards of nursing are governmental agencies that set guidelines for nursing licensing and practice, which vary from state to state. These boards evaluate license applications, administer licensure exams, and are also responsible for upholding ethical nursing practice within their states.

  • Nurse Practitioner (NP)

All NPs must be certified before being allowed to practice and are required to pass an exam set by either the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) or the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). The various state nursing boards specify their preference for either one of these certifications.

Both of these certifying agencies require NP recertification every five years. Between certification cycles, NPs are mandated to meet specific requirements for gaining additional practical clinical experience and continuing education.

Duties and Responsibilities

Typical duties and responsibilities of a nurse vs. nurse practitioner are outlined below.

Registered Nurse (RN)

  • Patient monitoring
  • Recording clinical information and maintaining patient records
  • Ordering diagnostic tests
  • Supervising other nurses and health care staff
  • Communicating with patients and their families about health care education, treatment plans, and disease prevention
  • Assisting doctors with examinations and treatments

(A registered nurse may not prescribe medications.)

Nurse Practitioner (NP)

  • Conducting physical and clinical assessments
  • Managing patient care
  • Performing and analyzing diagnostic tests
  • Prescribing medicines
  • Preventive care and disease management
  • Developing treatment regimens for acute and chronic illnesses
  • Educating and guiding patients on disease prevention and healthy lifestyle habits

Job Outlook

  • Registered Nurse (RN)

RNs work under the direction of a physician, determining required levels of patient care and executing key elements of treatment plans. RNs have many opportunities for employment in different settings, including hospitals, clinics, medical practices, and schools.

RNs also have the opportunity to specialize and practice in various areas of health care, including cardiac, neonatal, orthopedics, pediatrics, intensive care, surgical, or ER/trauma. In 2017, the median pay for a registered nurse was $70,000 per year. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has estimated that the demand for RNs will increase by 15 percent from 2016 to 2026.

  • Nurse Practitioner (NP)

NPs can work independently in many states, although some states require their work to be overseen by physicians. NPs may be employed by hospitals, clinics, and medical practices, or open their own private practices. The BLS has projected the demand for NPs will increase by 31 percent from 2016 to 2026. In 2017, the median salary for an NP was $110,930.

Your nurse vs. nurse practitioner career choice depends to a large extent on how much time and money you must spend on education, and on where your professional passion lies. Evidence shows that NPs have greater earning potential than RNs, and also enjoy a higher degree of independence.

Learn More

Nurses and nurse practitioners have tough jobs, but caring for patients brings these caregivers great job satisfaction. The U.S. will have a greater need for advanced practice providers in the coming years, so now is a great time to explore careers with a nurse practitioner specialization. Regis College offers online post-master’s certificates for nurse practitioners to pursue their interests as advanced practice providers.

Recommended Reading

7 Career Specializations for Nurse Practitioners

Steps for Improving Nurse to Patient Ratios

Should Nurse Practitioners Have Full Practice Authority?


American Nurses Association

Bureau of Labor Statistics

Bureau of Labor Statistics

American Nurses Association

American Nurses Association

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