The Difference Between Nurse Practitioner And Doctor

Different occupations in the medical field can be confusing if you aren’t a part of it. One of the more common issues we face is that many don’t understand the difference between a nurse practitioner and a doctor/physician.

The two roles may seem similar and overlap in some areas, but they are vastly different.

A Brief Overview Of Nurse Practitioners And Doctors

The two areas where nurse practitioners and doctors differ most are their qualifications and scope of practice.

A nurse practitioner is usually a nurse who continued to more advanced training, often a master’s, or doctoral degree. This gives them the knowledge to diagnose and treat the most common illnesses.

Doctors or physicians follow a rigorous educational path involving an undergraduate degree followed by four years of medical school, after which they undergo residency for a more hands-on education under mentorship.

Doctors can perform more complex medical procedures than nurse practitioners, such as surgeries.

Why The Comparison Matters

There are two main reasons why it’s essential to understand the differences between nurse practitioners and doctors.

The first reason has to do with studies.

If you want to study for a career in the medical field, knowing what you want to achieve and where you want to go with your job will help you choose the correct study path, possibly saving you time and money in the process.

The second is that it enables us to make informed decisions about our healthcare.

There are often significant differences between the two in terms of costs and how they operate, so it could occasionally make sense to go see a nursing practitioner rather than a doctor, which is most people’s default choice.

Roles And Responsibilities

They perform many similar tasks, but nurse practitioners and doctors have different roles and responsibilities that often complement each other.

Nurse Practitioner’s Roles & Responsibilities

Nurse practitioners (NPs) are trained to provide primary and specialized healthcare services.

They can perform physical examinations, diagnose and treat common illnesses, manage chronic conditions, order and interpret diagnostic tests, prescribe medications, provide health education, and offer preventive care.

They often have a holistic approach, focusing on patient education and preventive measures to promote overall wellness.

They generally adopt a patient-centered and collaborative approach, often spending more time with patients, actively listening to their concerns, and providing comprehensive explanations.

Nurse practitioners also focus on building strong patient-provider relationships, emphasizing shared decision-making.

They address patients’ physical, emotional, and social well-being, considering the whole person in their care. They also encourage patient education and engagement, empowering individuals to actively participate in healthcare decisions.

NPs also collaborate with other healthcare professionals too, such as doctors and specialists, to coordinate care plans.

They may also engage in health promotion initiatives, run health education drives, and participate in healthcare management and administrative tasks.

Lastly, they can often work in primary care settings, hospitals, clinics, or specialty practices.

Doctor’s Roles & Responsibilities

Doctors have a broader scope of practice.

They diagnose and treat various medical conditions, including complex cases. They can perform medical procedures, surgeries, and specialized treatments.

Doctors are responsible for managing and coordinating patient care, making critical decisions, and often specialize in specific medical fields such as cardiology, pediatrics, or surgery.

Doctors’ consultation room dynamics can vary based on their specialty and the nature of the visit.

They typically employ a structured and systematic approach to gather medical history, conduct physical examinations, and order relevant tests. They often play a crucial role in critical or acute care scenarios.

While doctors also value patient communication, their interactions may focus more on the medical aspects of the condition and treatment options.

Doctors’ daily routines vary widely depending on their specialty, work setting, and patient population.

They typically see patients, diagnose medical conditions, devise treatment plans, and perform medical procedures. They may spend time in surgeries, rounds, consultations, and follow-ups.

Doctors will also collaborate with other healthcare professionals, supervise medical teams, review diagnostic tests, interpret results, and provide specialist care.

Doctors may also choose to engage in research, teaching, administration, or leadership roles within their respective medical fields.

Education And Training

Education is one of the most significant differences between nurse practitioners and doctors.

It takes between 6 and 8 years to become a nurse practitioner while becoming a doctor requires approximately 10 to 11 years.

Nurse Practitioner’s Education & Training

The study path to becoming a nurse practitioner is as follows:

Step 1: Obtain a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN).

Step 2: Become a registered nurse. This process will depend on the requirements of your state.

Step 3: Work as a nurse for at least one year to obtain experience. Experience in a specialty field would be even better.

Step 4: Complete an accredited Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). Note that NPs are increasingly being required to do a DNP instead of an MSN.

Step 5: Take an APRN (Advanced Practice Registered Nurse) examination.

Step 6: Apply for an APRN license in your state. This process will also differ from state to state.

Doctor’s Education & Training

Doctors have a more intensive study path:

Step 1: Obtain a four-year Bachelor’s degree in physics, biology, chemistry, or another natural science-related study field.

Step 2: Take the required pre-med classes as prescribed by your college.

Step 3: Take your MCAT exam to qualify for entry into the medical college.

Step 4: Apply to medical school.

Step 5: Complete the medical school’s 4-year program.

Step 6: Complete your residency. This could take between 3 and 7 years, depending on your area of focus and specialty.

Step 7: If you are planning to become a specialist doctor, you must complete a medical fellowship.


Both careers have various specialized fields, but they differ vastly, which is another significant difference between nurse practitioners and doctors.

Nurse Practitioner’s Specialties

Here are some of the NP specializations:

  • Clinical Nurse Specialists perform general patient consultations but are also active in research and outreach activities.
  • Certified Nurse Midwives specialize in all aspects of pregnancy, including postpartum treatment.
  • Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists can administer anesthesia to patients before surgery or childbirth.
  • Acute Care Nurse Practitioners specialize in short-term illnesses. They often work with doctors but can also have their own practices.
  • Emergency Nurse Practitioners work in the emergency rooms of hospitals. They must have an extensive understanding of medical science to deal with various injuries and illnesses.
  • Adult-Gerontology Nurse Practitioners specialize in providing healthcare to senior citizens. These are the nurse practitioners that you often find working in nursing homes.
  • Neonatal Nurse Practitioners care for newborn babies in hospital nurseries or Newborn Intensive Care Units.
  • Pediatric Nurse Practitioners specialize in caring for children and, sometimes, adolescents.
  • Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners focus on psychiatric care through medication or therapy. They often work with psychologists or psychiatrists but can also have their own practices.
  • Women’s Health Nurse Practitioners focus on productive care for women, including routine things like annual checkups.
  • Orthopedic Nurse Practitioners work with bone-related injuries and diseases.
  • Holistic Nurse Practitioners focus on treating the patient as a whole person, so they will care for patients physically, emotionally, and mentally.

Doctor’s Specialties

Doctors have plenty of specialization options, generally sorted into 20 broad specialization categories, each of which has several sub-layers of specialization:

  • Allergy and Immunology
  • Anesthesiology
  • Dermatology
  • Diagnostic Radiology
  • Emergency Medicine
  • Family Medicine
  • Internal Medicine
  • Medical Genetics
  • Neurology
  • Nuclear Medicine
  • Obstetrics and Gynecology
  • Ophthalmology
  • Pathology
  • Pediatrics
  • Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
  • Preventive Medicine
  • Psychiatry
  • Radiation Oncology
  • Surgery
  • Urology

Some of these fields, like surgery, have over 30 fields within them. There’s no shortage of options for doctors that want to specialize.

Scope of Practice

There’s a lot of overlap in the scope of practice for nurse practitioners and doctors, but it is highly dependent on their area of specialization and state regulations.

Nurse Practitioner’s Scope of Practice

Nurse practitioners in the United States are limited by the medical laws of the state they practice in. There are three categories.

1. Full Practice

Around 30 states allow Nurse Practitioners to operate in “Full Practice.” This means they can diagnose, order and interpret tests and prescribe medications and treatments.

2. Reduced Practice

Fifteen states limit nurse practitioners to “Reduced Practice.” This means they have to collaborate with another medical practitioner or provider, or the state may restrict what they can do in their practice.

3. Restricted Practice

Some states implement “Restricted Practice” for nurse practitioners, which means they cannot practice outside of career-long partnerships and supervision from another healthcare provider, usually a physician.

Doctor’s Scope of Practice

As with nurse practitioners, the state also regulates the scope of practice for doctors. However, doctors generally have more freedom due to their higher level of training and expertise.

Most doctors can perform all the functions of a Full Practice nurse practitioner and more. Besides diagnosing, interpreting tests, and prescribing medication, doctors can often develop in-depth treatment plans, provide specialist care, and manage chronic conditions.

Depending on the doctor’s area of specialization, they can also administer more advanced treatment, like surgery.

There are generally fewer restrictions on the scope of practice of a doctor than on a nurse practitioner.

Career Path And Opportunities

There are career advancement opportunities for nurse practitioners and doctors, but they differ somewhat.

Nurse Practitioner’s Career Path

NPs are currently in high demand.

According to a study from the Association of American Medical Colleges, fewer students are being accepted into medical school than before, so there aren’t as many qualified doctors entering the field each year.

This means that many states have a higher demand for nurse practitioners due to their shorter study path, and since most states allow nurse practitioners to practice in full, this fills the healthcare gap effectively.

Nurse practitioners can advance their careers by specializing in specific patient populations or clinical areas. They may pursue additional certifications, such as becoming a nurse practitioner in acute care, oncology, or critical care.

They can take on leadership roles within their clinical practice, participate in research, contribute to policy development, and even become educators or program directors in nursing schools or healthcare organizations.

Doctor’s Career Path

The career path for a doctor is like that of a nurse practitioner in some ways.

Though a doctor may choose a specialist field early on, many choose to work as general medical practitioners for several years while completing further studies.

Doctors can pursue further specialization through fellowship programs, allowing them to become experts in specific areas of medicine.

They may also engage in research, teaching, and leadership roles within their specialty or healthcare institutions. Doctors can advance to administrative positions, hospital management, or even become medical directors.

Generally, because doctors are much more specialized than nurse practitioners, they can progress much further in their careers, but it will depend on their interests, skills, and priorities.

Salary And Job Outlook

Two of the most essential differences between doctors and nurse practitioners are salary and job outlook.

Nurse Practitioner’s Salary & Job Outlook

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), nurse practitioner salaries differ between states, but approximately $124,680 is a safe average.

California, Alaska, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Hawaii, Minnesota, Connecticut, Washington, and Wyoming are the highest-paying states.

BLS data also shows that by 2031, the number of nurse practitioner jobs is projected to increase by 40%- so the future looks bright.

However, NP salary will depend on your field of specialization and the state you choose to practice in.

Doctor’s Salary & Job Outlook

Doctor salaries vary widely depending on specialization. BLS Data shows that the average salary of a medical doctor in the United States is $208,000, but this goes up as the doctor chooses a specialist field.

For example, the average salary of a cardiologist is $353,970, while that of a plastic surgeon could easily go above $500,000.

Doctors will always be in high demand, especially those with highly specialized skills.

Other Considerations

There are a few other considerations that we should keep in mind concerning the differences between nurse practitioners and doctors.

Nurse Practitioner V. Doctor: Cost Of Schooling

Studying to become a nurse practitioner generally costs less than becoming a doctor. Depending on factors such as public college vs. private college, becoming a nurse practitioner could cost between $26,490 and $254,260.

On the other hand, according to Forbes, medical school alone could cost as much as approximately $340,000.

That doesn’t include undergraduate tuition and fees- which if included, increases the cost of becoming a doctor significantly. In this regard, becoming a doctor will cost much more than becoming a nurse practitioner.

Nurse Practitioner V. Doctor: Perspectives From The Field

All things considered, most nurse practitioners are happy with their career choice. There are a few common concerns and frustrations, like these raised by NP on Reddit:

  • Some nursing practitioners miss their time as registered nurses because they long back for the days of bedside care. However, depending on your field of specialization, you could still have plenty of that.
  • Some find the responsibility of diagnosing patients too stressful, even after years of working as nurse practitioners.
  • There’s an intrinsic conflict between some doctors and nurse practitioners since doctors often feel that they are superior and that a nurse practitioner’s opinions aren’t as valuable as theirs.

With physicians, medical shows often give us the impression that being a doctor is an illustrious role. But, as we can see from this Reddit thread, doctors struggle with many things, including:

  • Internal politics
  • Being overworked
  • Patients sometimes disrespect them and think they know better
  • The job becomes routine after a while

When Does it Make Sense To Visit A Nurse Practitioner V. Doctor?

Depending on the state you’re living in and the reason why you need a consultation, a nurse practitioner could be just as helpful as a doctor. For most common illnesses and injuries, you could save a lot of time and money by visiting a nurse practitioner.

But since doctors are more specialized and hold higher qualifications, they can diagnose and treat a broader range of diseases.

If you’re suffering from a chronic illness or a condition that doesn’t want to get better, even after consulting with a nurse practitioner, it’s time to visit a doctor.


The difference between a nurse practitioner and doctor is quite pronounced, and some people find their personalities fit better with one than the other. But both careers deserve respect for living out the greatest calling: caring for people and saving lives.


Nurse practitioners are not doctors, even though their roles often overlap. Doctors study for longer and are often more specialized than nurse practitioners.

The limitations for nurse practitioners largely depend on the laws of the state where they practice. Some states barely limit them, while others only let them practice in partnership with or under a doctor’s supervision.

Patients may choose to consult a nurse practitioner instead of a doctor if they are suffering from a common illness. Nurse practitioners are often just as good as doctors at diagnosing and treating common diseases and injuries.


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