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

By Amanda Guarniere

Updated June 23, 2022 | Published February 25, 2020

Updated June 23, 2022

Published February 25, 2020

Amanda Guarniere is an Ivy League-educated nurse practitioner and career mentor to more than 40,000 nursing professionals worldwide. Amanda founded “The Resume Rx” out of a desire to see a world where nurse practitioners feel empowered, balanced and personally and professionally fulfilled.

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Understanding the differences between a nurse practitioner (NP) and a registered nurse (RN) can help you decide if the nursing field is right for you. Basically, an NP has much more independence than an RN, who typically works under the supervision of a doctor or an NP. In this article, we explain the duties of each of these professionals and their similarities and differences.

What is a nurse practitioner?

A nurse practitioner is a registered nurse who has completed an advanced, graduate-level education to perform certain duties traditionally performed by a physician. The role of an NP is to work collaboratively with the health care team while seeing and assessing patients, ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests, diagnosing a condition and creating a plan of treatment. They also help manage chronic conditions and make adjustments accordingly for the patient. An NP can write prescriptions, order and interpret tests such as blood tests and X-rays and perform basic procedures such as suturing, biopsies and other skills depending on the area in which they work.

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What is an RN?

A registered nurse acts as a caregiver for patients in a medical setting. An RN assists a physician and other health care professionals in several health care environments. They're found everywhere from the operating room to a doctor's office and are usually the first health professional a patient sees. Registered nurses listen to patients, take vital health information, collect samples, write down patient information, monitor health equipment, administer medications and therapies and work in conjunction with a physician or NP. They also educate patients, assist with managing and navigating their care and serve in a variety of administrative, managerial and executive positions. Registered nurses cannot prescribe medication or order tests for patients.

Differences between a nurse practitioner and an RN

A registered nurse and an NP are both trained to care for patients. However, there are some differences in their job duties, education and salaries. It is helpful to think of the RN and NP roles on a continuum since the NP role builds on the foundation of an RN role.

Here are some of the major differences between an NP and an RN:

Job duties

Job duties for RNs and NPs are similar, but an NP performs more advanced duties than that of an RN.
Here are some common duties for an RN:

  • Providing basic care to patients

  • Monitoring patients' vital signs

  • Recording patient information

  • Assisting physicians and clinicians in the treatment of patients

  • Communicating with patients and their families

While an NP can perform the above duties, their advanced training prepares them to fulfill these primary duties:

  • Writing prescriptions

  • Ordering lab tests and other diagnostic tests such as X-rays and blood tests

  • Communicating with patients to provide a correct diagnosis

  • Diagnosing and treating acute illnesses

  • Monitoring and managing chronic illnesses

  • Working with patients to live healthy lifestyles

  • Performing minor procedures, such as sutures, splinting and biopsies

Educational requirements

The minimum education required for each role is different. An RN can become licensed after completing an associate or bachelor’s degree program. Registered nurses can also advance their education in certain leadership or education fields by obtaining a master’s or doctoral degree. An NP needs to first earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing and become a licensed RN. They then must complete a master’s or doctoral degree in advanced practice nursing with the associated clinical training to be eligible for licensure as an NP.

Most NPs hold a Master of Science in Nursing, though they can also earn a Doctor of Nursing Practice. The training and education to become an NP are more extensive than a nursing degree but less intensive than a medical degree. There are no residency requirements for nurse practitioners as there are for physicians completing medical training.

To become either type of nurse, students need to undergo a certain amount of clinical training as well. Registered nurses usually need at least 400 hours of clinical experience, while an NP needs 500 or more hours.

Registered nurses and NPs also undergo continuing education, complete a set amount of contact hours and complete specific types of training to retain licensing. Local jurisdictions set the requirements for renewal which can vary. Registered nurses must renew their state licenses periodically per the requirements of the respective state. Nurse practitioners must renew their state licenses as well as their board certifications, which are often fulfilled with a combination of practice hours and continuing education contact hours.

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Registered nurses and NPs have unique supervisory requirements. Depending on the work setting, RNs have their own supervisory structure. Nurse practitioners may practice independently in some states that have full practice authority (FPA). In other states, NPs may have to work collaboratively with a physician or be directly supervised.

One of the major duties of an RN is to assign, delegate and supervise licensed practical nurses and nurse assistants in most health care settings. Registered nurses with extensive experience may also supervise other nurses in a specific unit. They could create schedules, oversee all work, take part in the hiring process and act as managers of entire units and departments. These RNs usually report to a director or other senior management body.

Nurse practitioner oversight varies based on the local jurisdiction requirements as well as the organization for which they work. Many NPs work closely with a physician regardless of the supervisory requirements. Some organizations and practice settings require the NP’s patient notes to be reviewed by a physician.

In other settings, the physician must just make themselves available for clinical consultation. However, some jurisdictions are eliminating the requirement of a supervisory or collaborating physician and allowing NPs to operate independently. In many states, NPs can open their own practices as business owners.

Work environment

While both roles are health-industry related, RNs typically have a wider range of work environments available to them than an NP.

Registered nurses are found in surgical suites, doctor's offices, nursing homes, hospitals, schools, home health care, hospice facilities and even on cruise ships.

Fewer physicians are entering the primary care field and many medical facilities are using NPs to fill these roles. Urgent care clinics, private practices, hospitals, managed care facilities and college campuses are some of the places that employ NPs. More employers are hiring NPs because they are capable of performing many of the duties traditionally performed by a primary care physician. As a result, an NP is most likely to find employment in a clinical setting.

Since many NPs also complete doctoral degrees, they can be found working in managerial and executive-level roles. Nurse practitioners can also work in research settings, as entrepreneurs and in non-traditional health care settings such as concierge medicine, telemedicine and aesthetics. Both NPs and RNs can work in a higher education setting, teaching nursing students in a school or clinical setting.

Americans have rated nurses the most trusted profession for 19 consecutive years and as such, both RNs and NPs can be found in executive suites, board rooms and even as Surgeons General of the United States.

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Since RNs and NPs need to complete different education and training requirements, they usually earn varying salaries. The average hourly income for an RN is $28.91 per hour. They can expect to earn an additional income of $11,250 per year in overtime. The average annual salary for an NP is $115,895 per year and overtime pay averages about $17,500 per year. For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click on the salary link.

The pay for both professions can vary depending on experience, educational level and area of practice. An RN with many years of experience, for example, may earn more than an entry-level NP. Salaries can also vary from state to state with adjustments for the cost of living and demand for these roles.

Jobs similar to nurse practitioners and RNs

If caring for patients and working in the medical field is something that interests you, there are a variety of careers to consider. Here are 10 jobs related to nurse practitioners and RNs:

1. Advanced practice registered nurse

2. Primary care physician

3. Physician assistant

4. Licensed practical nurse

5. Clinical nurse

6. Paramedic

7. Phlebotomist

8. Dialysis nurse

9. Health technician

10. Medical assistant

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