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Nurse Practitioner vs. Doctor: Key Differences Explained
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Nurse Practitioner vs. Doctor: Key Differences Explained

Nurse Practitioner vs. Doctor: Key Differences Explained

Adequate healthcare is increasingly becoming an important topic of discussion. At some point, everyone will come into contact with some sort of medical professional.

While physicians have long been the standard for providing care in all areas of medicine, other workers, like nurse practitioners, are steadily becoming an important part of the healthcare system.

But how do we distinguish all of the various medical professionals? How does someone know who the right person to seek out for medical care is? Are there specific advantages or disadvantages attached to care providers?

Below, we’re breaking down what you need to know about nurse practitioners and doctors — what they are, their similarities and key differences, and how they may fit into your health goals.

How Are Nurse Practitioners and Doctors Similar?

Before we outline some of the key differences between nurse practitioners and medical doctors, it’s important to note how these professions’ duties overlap. It may even surprise you how similar they actually can be when it comes to certain aspects. At Fast Pace Health, we use nurse practitioners at most of our clinic locations, with physicians overseeing charts and contributing to care plans.

Like doctors, nurse practitioners can do several things.

  • Diagnose patients and provide treatment for acute conditions
  • Perform physical exams and record patient medical histories
  • Act as someone’s primary care provider
  • Manage treatment plans, prescribe most medications, and oversee progress
  • Order labs and tests like blood work, x-rays, etc.
  • Guide patients through preventative lifestyle choices like nutrition plans and exercise regimens
  • Gain board-certified status in certain specialty areas of medicine

Defining These Professions

In the broadest sense, what is a nurse practitioner? And what is a medical doctor?

Nurse Practitioner

Nurse Practitioner is another term used to describe someone who is an advanced practice registered nurse. Nurse Practitioners have undergone advanced education and further training to expand their roles and responsibilities in healthcare.

They work in various settings, including hospitals, private practices, clinics, community health centers, and nursing homes. Nurse Practitioners are often seen at urgent care facilities, which are an option for those who need prompt patient care but are not experiencing a medical emergency.

They can also have specialties and choose to work in specific areas of the healthcare world like pediatrics, psychiatry, family medicine, and women’s health. They may also have earned a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) degree – an educational degree that nurses can achieve on top of their bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree.

They are first and foremost equipped to help handle chronic and acute conditions but can also engage in holistic and preventative treatments. It’s worth recognizing, however, that in the United States, the scope of their authority can differ slightly from state to state, as every jurisdiction has its own healthcare laws.

Doctor

Under the broader umbrella term of “physician,” there are two main types of medical professionals that are considered “doctors.” Doctors possess extensive training and education and must have a license from an accredited medical school.

Doctors can provide direct care to patients, but they may spend much of their careers doing diagnostic tests, reviewing medical histories, and performing surgeries. They are primarily found in hospitals, private practices, and public health organizations but often teach medicine in schools and other educational institutions. Doctors can specialize in any area of medicine, such as internal medicine, neurology, ophthalmology, dermatology, etc.

Key Differences

Responsibility and Authority

Differences in the responsibilities of nurse practitioners and doctors mainly come down to what state they are practicing in.

NPs are authorized for full practice in 22 states and Washington D.C., meaning they can serve communities without the oversight of a physician. In the remaining areas, nurse practitioners can still treat patients but will collaborate with a physician on more complicated diagnoses, as specified by state law.

Education and Training

The career path to becoming an NP is rigorous and thorough. However, it is not the same path as becoming a doctor, which is more extensive and requires more in-depth educational requirements.

Nurse practitioners start by earning a standard bachelor’s degree in nursing from an accredited university’s nursing program. They then gain licensure to practice as an RN by passing the NCLEX-RN exam.

After a few years of work experience, registered nurses must earn a graduate degree (master’s degree) that includes a practicum that takes two to three years (master of science in nursing). Finally, they must pass a national certification exam to become a fully licensed nurse practitioner.

Those seeking to become doctors of medicine start with a standard bachelor’s degree, which must include completing specific prerequisite courses. They are only admitted to medical school after passing rigorous standardized testing.

After four years of medical school, they must pass another medical license test to participate in a residency training program. Lastly, doctors receive a state license and doctoral degree once they have completed their training residency.

Specialization

While nurse practitioners and doctors can choose to specialize in specific fields of medicine, there are distinctions regarding approach and scope of care.

These distinctions can be illustrated best by looking at an example from the area of women’s health. Nurse practitioners are suited to provide reproductive care and family planning, while doctors occupy obstetrics and gynecology needs.

Another specialization is becoming a family nurse practitioner or FNP. Nurse practitioners can also specialize in mental health services and acute care. RNs can also focus on being clinical nurses (expert clinicians in specialized fields).

What Is the Importance of Nurse Practitioners?

One of the most important differences between NPs and doctors in today’s medical landscape is the ease of access to each. The reality is that due to certain factors, like a recent national shortage of primary care physicians, many who live in underserved communities aren’t getting the care they need.

It can be much easier to make an appointment with a nurse practitioner than it is with a doctor, and it is also often more affordable. Because of this shift, nurse practitioners are increasingly becoming a more viable option for those seeking a primary care provider.

What Does Primary Care Mean?

You may have heard the term “primary care” at some point but are unsure exactly what it refers to. When considering whether a doctor or nurse practitioner is right for whatever your health needs, it’s beneficial to understand what this term means.

Medical professionals can serve different roles throughout your life. While a torn tendon may require a surgeon, a primary care provider is someone who you can have a long-term relationship with. They can treat illness, advise on medical decisions, and help prevent conditions and issues.

A doctor and a nurse practitioner can be great primary care providers, and your choice will include personal factors such as accessibility and location.

Expanding Medical Care

Nurse practitioners and doctors are medical professionals who use the most up-to-date research and technology to impact people’s lives. They work directly with patients to improve health and prevent problems.

While doctors and nurse practitioners undergo different training paths and may specialize in different areas, they are both capable of providing patients with adequate help.

At Fast Pace Health, our ultimate goal is to provide compassionate and convenient care to rural communities that would otherwise not have sufficient access. We employ providers who take a patient-centered approach to healthcare and will help you along your health journey.

What started as one single urgent care in 2009 in Collinwood, Tennessee, has transformed into a wide network of health clinics dedicated to serving small cities and towns in areas across the Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, and the southern United States.

Since 2009, Fast Pace Health has expanded its geographic reach with more locations for in-person appointments, behavioral health appointments, and telehealth services for added convenience. You can also save your spot in line with Fast Pace Health. Reach out today for more information. 

Sources:

What is a DO? | American Osteopathic Association

State Practice Environment | AANP

What Is the NCLEX? What You Need to Know About This Key Nursing Exam | Rasmussen University