Understanding the Difference Between a Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician

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At their respective cores, the role of a nurse practitioner and a physician is the same. Both fields are charged with using knowledge and an ethos of service driven by compassion to provide a wide range of patient care. While this similar goal exists, there is enough differentiation in the way this goal is approached and achieved to make a nurse practitioner and a physician separate careers.

The Role of a Nurse Practitioner

Sometimes called advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), nurse practitioners or NPs are typically charged with two chief duties: to coordinate patient care, and to provide healthcare on a primary and specialty level. The spectrum of the latter element can vary from state to state, but in most states, NPs are able to prescribe medications, order medical tests and diagnose health issues. In some cases, they can provide specialized care within specific patient groups, such as pregnant women, children or patients with mental health disorders. While NPs can work in collaboration with physicians, they can work independently in some instances.

Because an NP can take on duties that are similar to a physician’s duties, the position is referred to as a mid-level provider. However, this term is not one that is necessarily recommended or endorsed by the profession. According to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, calling an NP a mid-level provider is an inaccurate and misleading term, as it unfairly implies an inferiority in the nurse practitioner vs. physician dynamic.

The Role of a Physician

Physicians provide an in-depth scope of diagnosis and treatment of a patient’s injuries or illnesses. This charge is executed through patient examinations and diagnostics, the study of medical history, medication prescriptions, and counseling on long-term health-related elements such as diet and preventative healthcare.

Physicians will typically work in one or more specialties. Some specialties such as family and general physicians assess and treat a broad spectrum of conditions that can crop up in everyday life. Other specialties hone in on a specific sphere of healthcare, such as pediatrics or internists.

Fundamental Differences Between a Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician

Although a nurse practitioner and a physician ultimately provide patient care, the difference in the type of care given by the respective professions mark the fundamental difference between the two professions. However, these differences leave plenty of room for compatibility, making it common for professionals within the two fields to work in a collaborative fashion.

The educational path to becoming a nurse practitioner vs. physician is another key difference between the two professions. Most NPs typically earn a master’s degree in nursing (MSN), while some pursue a doctor in nursing practice (DNP) graduate degree. A physician, on the other hand, must earn a bachelor’s degree in a relevant, pre-med discipline, and then complete medical school and a residency.

The amount of time it takes to become an NP or a physician also differs. It generally takes about about six to eight post-secondary years of education and training to become an NP. Conversely, it takes an average of 11 post-secondary years of education and training to become a physician.

Similarities and Differences in Work Environment

It’s not uncommon to see NPs and physicians in the same workspace, such as hospitals or  clinics. Because of this, it’s not surprising to find that both fields share a lot of common ground when it comes to work environment.

The work schedule of an NP or a physician can vary based on the origin of their practice. Those working ambulatory clinic settings typically work during normal business hours, while those in a hospital environment can work nights, weekends and holidays to meet the demands of round-the-clock patient care.

The primary difference between the two work environments between the two fields is physical. NPs tend to spend much of their day on their feet, which could lead to fatigue. They are also often charged with moving and lifting patients, which may make them vulnerable to back injuries. Additionally, because NPs tend to come in contact with a wide swath of patients, they may come in close contact with infectious diseases.

Differences in Salary and Job Growth

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a physician’s median pay is equal to or greater than $208,000 a year. NPs also earn a high wage for their work. The BLS reports that the median pay for a NP is $107,460 per year. The BLS also projects employment for NPS will grow by 31 percent by 2026, whereas employment for physicians will grow 13 percent during that same time frame.


There are many similarities between an NP and a physician, but there are several key differences that keep the two professions separate. For those who aspire to take the path to becoming an NP, completing a solid advanced nursing curriculum can be a critical step into leading them towards a fulfilling career in the ever-evolving field of healthcare.

Learn More

As our health care model evolves, more patients have a nurse practitioner for their primary care provider than ever before and the trend toward NPs as PCPs is expected to grow. The NP degree offers nurses a wide range of health care specialization opportunities, a greater degree of clinical autonomy than even PAs experience and a career that can include health care organization leadership roles. At Regis College, the MSN to DNP online program can help you begin your career path toward becoming an NP and a leader in your field.

Recommended Readings

MSN to DNP – Sometimes It’s About the Journey

How a Doctor of Nursing Practice Degree Can Lead to Better Patient Outcomes

How Family Nurse Practitioners with a DNP Degree Empower Patients and Families


Bureau of Labor Statistics

Journal of the Advanced Practitioner in Oncology

Becker’s Hospital Review

American Association of Nurse Practitioners

Association of American Medical Colleges