Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician: Examining the Key Differences

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A nurse practitioner and a doctor sit at a table discussing a treatment plan.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. 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, yet to potential students seeking to advance their careers, the distinctions between their roles and physician roles are crucial. Earning a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree gives skilled and knowledgeable medical professionals an opportunity to take their nursing expertise and experience to the next level.

Defining Nurse Practitioner and Physician Careers

Whether a person aspires to be a nurse practitioner or a physician, the quintessential mission of all who work in healthcare is the same: to deliver the best care to all who need it.

Nurse practitioners are essential to clinics and hospitals. Often anchors for the subjects 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.

Nurse practitioners work alongside physicians, who typically have fewer interactions with any individual patient, but are able to write prescriptions and call for surgeries. Together, they abide by a treatment plan and monitor each patient’s progress.

Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician: Similarities

Nurse practitioners and physicians share many skills and responsibilities, often specialize in a specific aspect of healthcare 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 Physicians

  • Both careers require the completion of an advanced degree and professional licensure.
  • The exact criteria for licensure may change depending on the location of residence.

Specializations for Nurse Practitioners and Physicians

  • Nurses and Physicians 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 Physicians

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

Nurse Practitioner vs. Physicians : Differences

Students and professionals alike should know the key distinctions between nurse practitioners and physicians. 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 physician’s in flexibility and scope. A nurse practitioner, for example, can often be available to patients needing immediate care sooner than a physician, allowing nurse practitioners to serve as a front line of defense in helping patients.

Additionally, nurse practitioners and physicians 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 physician’s. All else being equal, this may allow them to advance to a higher level quickly.

Consider some key differences in nurse practitioner vs. physician roles.

Nurse Practitioners Have More Availability Than Physicians

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

Nurse  Differing Educational Demands

  • A nurse practitioner can expect to spend fewer years in postsecondary education earning a DNP than a physician can expect to spend in advanced studies. However, while shorter than a physician’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 physician 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 Have Impressive Growth Outlook

  • While physician roles are projected to increase by 4% between 2019 and 2029 (the average for all occupations), nurse practitioners boast an impressive 45% growth outlook, several times higher than other trends, according to the BLS.
  • Nurse practitioners will be needed more than ever, as demand for people in that role continues to rise.

Nurse Practitioners Prescribe with Differing Levels of Oversight

  • Like physicians, nurse practitioners have the authority to prescribe medication in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
  • Unlike physicians, many states limit a nurse practitioner’s ability to prescribe to the full extent of their education and training (their full practice authority).
  • Limitations on a nurse practitioner’s full practice authority include physician supervision and collaboration requirements.
  • According to the National Nurse-led Care Consortium, as of January 2021, 23 states allow nurse practitioners to prescribe to the full extent of their practice authority, including Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Maine, Nebraska and Oregon. Washington, D.C. also allows it.
  • As of January 2021, according to the NNCC, 27 states impose restrictions on the ability of nurse practitioners to prescribe to the full extent of their practice authority. These states include California, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas.
  • Key distinctions between nurse practitioners and physicians regarding prescription authority:
    • Like nurse practitioners, physicians 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, physicians 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 nurse practitioner specializations are 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.
  • Physician specializations include anesthesiology, dermatology, cardiology and general internist treatment for nonsurgical approaches to treating internal organs.

What’s Next for the Nurse Practitioner?

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, so does the need for nurse practitioners. 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 healthcare. 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 an online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree from Duquesne University 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 University’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 role 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 of nursing can learn how Duquesne University’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 healthcare.

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

Recommended Readings

Nurse Leadership During Organizational Mergers and Acquisitions

Finding a Work-Life Balance as a Nurse Leader

Transparency in Nursing Leadership and Healthcare


American Association of Colleges of Nursing, DNP Fact Sheet

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

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

Forbes, “Doctoring the Doctor Shortage”

National Nurse-Led Care Consortium, “Full Practice Authority”

Serve You Rx, “Understanding Quantity Limits”

Texas Medical Association, “Deadline Details”

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

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