Nurse Practitioner vs. Doctor: What Are the Differences?

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A nurse practitioner and a doctor talk at a conference table.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that far more nurse practitioners will be needed to care for an aging baby boom generation and to replace nurses who leave the profession due to retirement or burnout.

In fact, the BLS projects 52% job growth for nurse practitioners between 2020 and 2030, a figure significantly higher than the 8% growth projected for all professions. This opportunity makes becoming a nurse practitioner more appealing than ever.

Nurse practitioners are highly skilled and can possess years of on-the-job experience, and they can provide a high level of care that can potentially improve patient outcomes. It may appear that the duties they perform are similar to those of a doctor, but they don’t quite align. For potential students seeking to advance their careers by earning a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), understanding the distinctions between nurse practitioner versus doctor roles is crucial.

What Does a Nurse Practitioner Do?

Also known as advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), nurse practitioners record patient symptoms, conduct physical exams and diagnostic tests, diagnose health issues, and analyze test results.

Nurse practitioners can also work with patients to build effective health and wellness strategies. In some cases, they can conduct medical research. They can provide general care, or they can funnel their practice toward a specific demographic or concept, such as adult gerontology acute care.

Nurse practitioners are essential to clinics and hospitals. Often serving as anchors for the patients in their care and guiding lights for their peers, they can be magnificent leaders, fluent in empathy and bedside care. The nurse is often the first to tend to a patient’s concerns and assists in executing treatment.

What Does a Doctor Do?

Doctors diagnose and treat patient illnesses and injuries through examinations, diagnostic tests, medical history analysis and medication prescription. They also address a patient’s health maintenance through topics such as preventive care, hygiene and diet, and they can design and implement patient-specific treatment plans. Additionally, they can address a wide number of health concerns a patient may have.

Doctors can focus on a specific type of practice. This focus can be built around a subspecialty of patient health. For example, cardiologists focus on conditions relating to the heart and blood vessels, while dermatologists treat diseases relating to the skin, hair and nails.

Whether a person aspires to be a nurse practitioner or a doctor, the quintessential mission of all who work in health care is the same: to deliver the best care to all patients.

Similarities Between Nurse Practitioners and Doctors

Nurse practitioners and doctors share many skills and responsibilities, often specialize in a specific aspect of health care delivery and require licensure to operate in the field. They also share a remarkable work ethic and desire to create the greatest outcome for everyone in their care.

Licensure of Nurse Practitioners and Doctors

  • Both careers require the completion of an advanced degree and professional licensure.
  • The exact criteria for licensure may change depending on where they live and work.

Specializations for Nurse Practitioners and Doctors

  • Nurses and doctors can specialize as they wish, with their preferred patient demographic or field of study informing each area of expertise.
  • Some specializations are adult and geriatric health, psychiatric and mental health, and pediatric health.

Skills Shared by Nurse Practitioners and Doctors

  • To best assist patients, nurses and doctors must cultivate similar skills and competencies.
  • Nurses and doctors must have quick problem-solving skills, empathic communication skills, detail-oriented organizational skills and leadership skills.

Difference Between Nurse Practitioners and Doctors

Students and professionals alike should know the key distinctions between a nurse practitioner versus doctor. Understanding how the two careers coexist is key to planning long-term goals and time commitments.

Many duties can overlap, but a nurse practitioner’s role differs from a doctor’s in flexibility and scope. A nurse practitioner, for example, can often be available to patients who need immediate care sooner than from a doctor, allowing nurse practitioners to serve as a frontline of defense in helping patients.

Additionally, nurse practitioners and doctors differ in the extent of education they need to advance. Nurse practitioners who choose to pursue further education can earn a specialization that can deepen their knowledge and make them candidates for advancement.

Nurse practitioners can pursue educational goals while still working because a nurse practitioner’s educational requirements aren’t as extensive, overall, as a doctor’s. All else being equal, this may allow them to advance to a higher level quickly.

Consider some key differences in nurse practitioner versus doctor roles.

Nurse Practitioners Have More Availability Than Doctors

  • Patients seeking immediate attention can benefit from the availability of nurse practitioners to fulfill their health needs.

Nurse Differing Educational Demand

  • A nurse practitioner can expect to spend fewer years in postsecondary education earning a DNP than a doctor can expect to spend in advanced studies. However, while shorter than a doctor’s, a nurse practitioner’s advanced education is no less important to the field and is designed to open doors for nurse practitioners interested in advancing their careers.
  • Most doctor roles have greater ongoing educational requirements than nurse practitioner roles. This lets nurse practitioners spend less time in lectures and more time in their clinics or facilities helping others.

Nurse Practitioners Prescribe with Differing Levels of Oversight

Like doctors, nurse practitioners have the authority to prescribe medication in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

  • Unlike doctors, many states limit a nurse practitioner’s ability to prescribe to the full extent of their education and training (their full practice authority).
  • Limitations to a nurse practitioner’s full practice authority include doctor supervision and collaboration requirements.
  • As of 2022, according to the National Nurse-Led Care Consortium (NNCC), 25 states allow nurse practitioners to prescribe to the full extent of their practice authority, including Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Maine, New York, and Oregon. Washington, D.C., also allows it.
  • As of 2022, according to the NNCC, 25 states impose restrictions on the ability of nurse practitioners to prescribe to the full extent of their practice authority. These states include California, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas.
  • Key distinctions between nurse practitioners and doctors regarding prescription authority:
    • Like nurse practitioners, doctors are subject to certain requirements on the way they prescribe drugs, such as electronically prescribing controlled substances or quantity limits imposed by pharmacies or insurance companies.
    • Unlike nurse practitioners, however, doctors have full authority to prescribe as they see fit, within certain state-by-state restrictions.

Nurse Practitioners Pursue Different Career Paths

  • Active nurse practitioners who seek postsecondary study under a DNP degree can develop opportunities for career advancement.
  • Some nursing career paths involve nurse practitioner specializations. These pathways include family medicine, adult gerontology acute care and psychiatric mental health. DNP-prepared nurse practitioners can also hold leadership roles, such as clinical educator and chief nursing officer. These draw on an acute understanding of recent trends in evidence-based practice, nursing informatics and project analysis.
  • Doctor specializations include anesthesiology, dermatology, cardiology and general internist treatment for nonsurgical approaches to treating internal organs.

What to Expect as a Nurse Practitioner in the Future

With opportunities expected to grow in the next decade, many nurse practitioners are developing their skills and education, gaining the edge they need to advance in this important career. As patient numbers rise and current nurses retire or leave the profession, the need for nurse practitioners becomes more pressing. By earning a degree that takes the future into account, you can develop the skills needed to advance your career and meet the upcoming demand for nurse practitioners.

Duquesne University recognizes and responds to the investment of time and talent that nurse practitioners make to further their work in health care. To develop and expand your expertise in nursing practice and patient care through any of Duquesne’s array of targeted nursing programs, take the next step and learn more.

Earning Duquesne’s online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree helps nurse practitioners become more independent in their nursing careers. Nurses who pursue an MSN degree become changemakers, advocating for patients in today’s health care systems through increased expertise in a variety of nursing care and practice areas. The MSN program offers Family Nurse Practitioner, Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner, and Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner tracks, among others.

Duquesne’s online post-master’s certificates allow nurses to build on their education and experience to gain a competitive edge in the field, expand their current roles, or transition to a new specialization. Nurses can earn a post-master’s certificate specializing in family medicine, adult-gerontology acute care, psychiatric-mental health, and more.

Finally, nurse practitioners with plans to earn a doctorate in nursing can learn how Duquesne’s online DNP degree can take their future career to the next level, offering tracks to advance their clinical leadership and prepare them to address systemic issues in health care.

Find out how Duquesne can help you advance your nurse practitioner skill set and improve the quality of life of every patient who comes under your care.

Recommended Reading

Finding a Work-Life Balance as a Nurse Leader

Nurse Leadership During Organizational Mergers and Acquisitions

Transparency in Nursing Leadership and Healthcare


American Association of Colleges of Nursing, DNP Fact Sheet

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, Issues at a Glance: Full Practice Authority

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, Ranks of Nurse Practitioners Grow to Meet Primary Care Demand

American Journal of Nursing, NewsCAP: Nursing Workforce Crisis Looms With 4 Million Nurses Retiring by 2030

National Center for Biotechnology Information, “Practitioners and Prescriptive Authority”

National Nurse-Led Care Consortium, Full Practice Authority

Texas Medical Association, Deadline Details

The Guardian, “‘I Can’t Do This Any More’: U.S. Faces Nurse Shortage From Burnout”

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

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