Nurse Practitioner vs. Doctor: What's the Difference?

By Allie Blackham

Updated June 23, 2022 | Published January 3, 2020

Updated June 23, 2022

Published January 3, 2020

With over 12 years of experience as a freelance writer, Allie has worked on many campaigns related to healthcare and the medical field. Allie has a bachelor's degree in English and enjoys writing about various topics, particularly those that benefit the reader in their own professional journey.

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In the health care industry, those who provide direct care to patients can fit into several key roles. Understanding the differences between the various roles can help you determine which career path you might want to pursue in this vital and fast-growing field. Two examples of direct patient care roles that share some responsibilities are nurse practitioners and doctors. In this article, we define these two careers, explain how they differ and explore a few related jobs in the health care field.

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What is a nurse practitioner?

A nurse practitioner, also called an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), is a medical professional who may work under a cooperating or supervising physician. In some states, a nurse practitioner has full practice authority and can act as a primary care provider. They provide direct care to patients, treating both chronic and acute conditions and providing preventive care. Nurse practitioners work in hospitals, outpatient clinics and physicians' offices. While many of these professionals fall into the category of primary care, some choose to pursue a specialty in areas such as women's health, mental health or geriatric care.

Nurse practitioners perform a variety of day-to-day patient care duties, including obtaining medical histories, measuring vital signs, making diagnoses, creating treatment plans and administering medication. In the states where they have full authority, nurse practitioners can create and manage treatment plans, conduct and interpret critical diagnostic assessments and prescribe medications with no physician oversight. In the states where they don't have full authority, nurse practitioners require physician approval on certain patient care needs and decisions.

Read more: Learn About Being a Nurse Practitioner

What is a doctor?

A doctor or physician is a medical professional who supports the physical health of patients through a range of prevention and intervention duties. Doctors can perform all the functions of a nurse practitioner without the requirement of a collaborating or supervising physician in all 50 states. Specialized physicians can also perform surgery and other medical treatments. Doctors work across a variety of settings, including hospitals, health care clinics and specialized facilities, and may work during evening or overnight shifts.

During medical school, a doctor can either pursue a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO). MDs focus on the diagnosis and treatment of ailments with surgery, drugs and/or radiation, while DOs take a more holistic approach to medical treatment. By the end of medical school, doctors identify a specialty that they further refine through their residency. Regardless of what degree a student chooses, they can pursue any specialty, practice anywhere and perform surgeries and treatments for which they have undergone training. Sample specialties include:

  • Allergy and immunology

  • Anesthesiology

  • Dermatology

  • Emergency medicine

  • Family medicine

  • Gastroenterology

  • Internal medicine

  • Neurology

  • Obstetrics and gynecology

  • Oncology

  • Ophthalmology

  • Orthopedics

  • Pediatrics

  • Psychiatry

  • Sports medicine

  • Surgery

Read more: Learn About Being a Doctor

Nurse practitioner vs. doctor

Although both nurse practitioners and doctors provide direct care to patients, their roles differ substantially. Review some of the key differences between the two roles:

Specialization

While all nurse practitioners have an option to identify a specialty during graduate school, many focus on primary care. Doctors, in comparison, always choose a specialty, even if that specialty is family practice medicine. Each specialty has its own training and education requirements. While nurse practitioner programs might require certain specialized clinical hours, the requirement helps provide a well-rounded clinical experience.

In medical school, the requirement for aspiring physicians to do a specialized residency or fellowship occupies several years of post-medical school study and has significant salary implications upon graduation. Physicians who specialize in obstetrics and gynecology, gastroenterology or another field may increase their earning potential.

Related: How To Become a Nurse Practitioner

Education requirements

The first step in becoming a nurse practitioner is earning an associate or bachelor's degree in nursing. A nurse practitioner must also pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN) to become a registered nurse. The next educational step is earning a master's degree in nursing. A master's program can take two years or more, depending on whether you have an associate or bachelor's degree. The final step is earning your Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN) license. This license comes after you pass an exam and complete any additional certification requirements outlined by your state.

A doctor starts by earning a bachelor's degree in health science, biology or a related field. Next, they complete medical school, a four-year program, and earn either an MD or DO degree. Doctors complete a residency that lasts for three to seven years. The length of the residency depends on the specialty chosen. Some doctors also complete fellowships, which provide additional training and education in the chosen specialty. After completing the required education, the final step to practice medicine is passing a licensing exam, also known as the medical board exam.

Salary

While nurse practitioner and doctor salaries vary by state and employer, doctors typically earn significantly higher salaries than nurse practitioners. The average salary for physicians in the United States is $238,344 per year, while the average salary for nurse practitioners is $81,198 per year. These salaries may also vary based on a professional's level of experience, education and chosen specialty.

Related: Health Care Jobs That Pay Well

Job outlook

The health care field continues to grow, particularly as the aging population requires more care and the focus continues to shift to preventive care. Both physician and nurse practitioner roles should increase in the next decade. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the outlook for physicians and surgeons shows a 4% growth rate between 2019 and 2029.

In comparison, the BLS shows a growth rate of 45% between 2020 and 2030, which is substantially faster than average. The BLS nurse practitioner category also includes nurse-midwives and nurse anesthetists, although nurse practitioners may be in the highest demand during this time frame.

Careers related to nurse practitioners and doctors

Nurse practitioner and doctor are two direct patient care professions in the health care field, but those who want to interact with patients and provide care can choose from other opportunities as well. Some additional related health careers include:

1. Certified medical assistant

National average salary: $37,426 per year

Primary duties: A certified medical assistant works in a hospital or office setting, supporting doctors, nurse practitioners and other health care providers with administrative and clinical tasks. They interact directly with patients and may schedule appoints, record medical histories, take detailed patient notes and update digital charts or files. A medical assistant may also measure vital signs, administer shots or prepare blood work for lab analysis. Some medical assistants gain valuable hands-on experience that they use to pursue advanced health care careers in the future.

Related: Learn About Being a Medical Assistant

2. Physician assistant

National average salary: $72,134 per year

Primary duties: A physician assistant performs many similar functions to a doctor, although they can't prescribe medication or perform surgery. Their duties include measuring patient vital signs, performing simple procedures, diagnosing conditions and making treatment recommendations. They provide direct patient care and educate patients about how to maintain good health and care for their specific condition. Physician assistants often work independently from doctors, although they may consult with them periodically.

Related: Learn About Being a Physician Assistant

3. Registered nurse

National average salary: $78,788 per year

Primary duties: A registered nurse is a patient care professional who provides both medical treatment and emotional support to patients. Registered nurses work with individuals of all ages across school, hospital, office and clinic settings. Some of the primary job duties include measuring vital signs, conducting physical exams, administering medication and maintaining detailed records. A nurse also provides important education to patients about their medical conditions and how to treat them.

Related: Learn About Being a Registered Nurse (RN)

4. Physical therapist

National average salary: $81,284 per year

Primary duties: A physical therapist helps a patient recover from an isolated or chronic muscle, joint or nerve injury. Their support focuses on pain management and recovery of strength and a full range of motion so that patients can resume their previous lifestyles. Physical therapists review medical histories, conduct and analyze assessments and develop treatment plans. Physical therapists work collaboratively with other medical professionals, especially orthopedic nurses and orthopedic surgeons.

Related: Learn About Being a Physical Therapist

5. Nurse anesthetist

National average salary: $178,249 per year

Primary duties: A nurse anesthetist is a medical professional who focuses on pain management through the administration of anesthesia for patients during surgical and non-surgical procedures. Common job responsibilities include gathering a patient's medical history, determining an appropriate dosage plan, performing epidural or spinal block procedures and supporting a patient's overall recovery. An important part of recovery support is monitoring a patient's functioning before, during and after a procedure.

Related: Learn About Being a Nurse Anesthetist

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