Can Nurse Practitioners Diagnose Patients?

Yes, some nurse practitioners diagnose patients.

However, they also prescribe medications and act as primary care providers.

Nurse practitioners are advanced practice registered nurses who’ve obtained their MSN or DNP degrees.

As a result, they have the most comprehensive scope of practice within the nursing profession.

A nurse practitioner’s legal and medical responsibilities and the scope of practice differ depending on the state and specialty.

For example, some nurse practitioners own and operate clinics in full-practice states.

However, many states require a physician or medical doctor to supervise, delegate or manage nurse practitioners.

The AANP State Price Environment guide breaks down a nurse practitioner’s scope of practice by the state.

The following section breaks down their duties and responsibilities to provide information on what nurse practitioners diagnose.

It also gives several examples of a nurse practitioner’s scope of practice to understand their profession better.

1. Act as Primary Care Providers

Nurse practitioners act as primary care providers for various patients.

In short, patients can choose a nurse practitioner to provide various medical services instead of a doctor in certain states.

Nurse practitioners share many responsibilities with doctors in assessing, diagnosing, and treating medical conditions.

However, nurse practitioners’ actions differ depending on the state and their scope of practice.

For instance, pediatric nurse practitioners provide services to young children.

As a result, they have a different scope of practice than women’s health nurse practitioners or adult gerontology nurse practitioners.

They also prescribe medications within their scope of practice and state laws.

It means they don’t prescribe medications unless they have prescriptive authority in their state.

Common Types of Nurse Practitioners

  • Adult-Gerontology Nurse Practitioner
  • Family Nurse Practitioner
  • Neonatal Nurse Practitioner
  • Pediatric Nurse Practitioner
  • Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner
  • Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner

Ultimately, their profession and scope of practice determine what nurse practitioners diagnose and treat. 

2. Diagnose Patients

Nurse practitioners diagnose patients as previously mentioned.

However, their ability to diagnose various medical conditions depends on their education and career specialty.

A nurse practitioner’s assessment, diagnosis, and treatment center on infants and young children for those in neonatal care or pediatrics.

Alternatively, nurse practitioners specializing in adult and family care provide assessments, diagnoses, and treatments to different demographics.

The following sections cover a few medical conditions nurse practitioners diagnose.

However, there is a wide variety of medical conditions and mental health issues NPs diagnose within their scope of practice.

Conditions Nurse Practitioner’s Treat:

  • ADHD
  • Anxiety
  • Autism
  • Cancer
  • Dementia
  • Mental Illness
  • PTSD

And various other mental health, emotional and physiological conditions.

Finally, nurse practitioners develop and prescribe treatment plans and medications based on their patient’s conditions and diagnoses.

It allows nurse practitioners to provide primary care without the patient requiring various medical professionals.

It also helps states and areas with physician/doctor shortages by filling an essential role in the healthcare system.

3. Prescribe Medication

Following medical diagnoses and evaluation, nurse practitioners prescribe medications to patients.

The purpose of the medication is to improve the patient’s condition and manage symptoms more effectively.

Prescribing medication is also essential to their practice as it allows nurse practitioners to provide much-needed care.

It’s vital in areas where highly experienced medical professionals are less common.

Prescriptive medications may include pain prescription drugs, therapeutic drugs, steroids, and depression medications.

They can also prescribe other non-OTC medications to treat various medical conditions and diseases.

Prescribing medication requires an evaluation to determine whether specific drugs benefit the patient.

Nurse practitioners must also determine whether medication has adverse effects.

Determining medication has adverse effects is essential to ensure it doesn’t worsen the patient’s condition and health.

Additional Resources:

4. Own and Operate Clinics

As primary care providers, nurse practitioners can open, operate, and own clinics.

It allows NPs to manage their practice, facilitate patients and operate a business.

However, a nurse practitioner’s scope of practice varies by state, and some states require NPs to work alongside a doctor.

It’s true even if the nurse practitioner owns the clinic.

It’s essential for those interested in becoming nurse practitioners to determine their state’s scope of practice.

Determining the state’s scope of practice enables nurse practitioners to see if it’s worth pursuing higher education.

Nurse practitioners operating in limited/restricted states can pursue advanced careers in more flexible states.

Nevertheless, it’s essential to identify what’s required before making the change.

Benefits of Running a Clinic

Owning a clinic offers numerous advantages for nurse practitioners.

Firstly, nurse practitioners act as primary care providers in full-practice states.

It allows them to make high-level healthcare decisions for their patients.

It’s beneficial for APRNs who care deeply for their patients and want more control over their medical decisions.

Nurse practitioners also can hire staff and delegate work to other qualified medical professionals.

Because NPs can own clinics, it increases the number of qualified specialists in states requiring more primary care providers.

Without nurse practitioners, underserved locations struggle to find qualified healthcare providers.

Due to professional shortages, getting a diagnosis and treatment would become more challenging and take longer.

A lack of qualified healthcare providers also means higher healthcare costs.

Owning a business allows nurse practitioners to earn good incomes while keeping patient costs low.

However, they] must contend with numerous responsibilities and state limitations that non-NPs do not.

Can Nurse Practitioners Diagnose Mental Illness?

Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNP) assess, diagnose and treat mental health conditions, disorders, and illnesses.

It includes ADHD, anxiety, autism, depression, BPD, substance abuse, OCD, and other mental health conditions.

Mental Health Conditions:

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Anxiety
  • Autism
  • Depression
  • Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)
  • Eating Disorders
  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Personality disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Substance abuse
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

A psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner’s duties, obligations, and scope of practice depend on their state.

As a result, their responsibilities, prescribe freedoms, and authority varies in different locations.

PMHNPs prescribe medications and act as primary care providers in full-practice states.

It enables them to treat mental health conditions more effectively and quickly without doctor/physician oversight.

A nurse practitioner’s scope of practice in reduced/restricted practice states.

Therefore, these specialists may require additional oversight to perform specific duties and tasks.

Can I See a Nurse Practitioner Instead of a Doctor?

Patients can see a nurse practitioner instead of a doctor, especially in full-practice states.

Nevertheless, the types of patients a nurse practitioner treats vary depending on their specialization.

There are numerous disciplines nurse practitioners pursue to provide specialized care to specific patient demographics.

It includes family care, pediatrics, neonatal care, gerontology, mental health, and women’s health.

Seven Types of Nurse Practitioners:

  1. Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner
  2. Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Practitioner
  3. Family Nurse Practitioner
  4. Neonatal Nurse Practitioner
  5. Pediatric Nurse Practitioner
  6. Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner
  7. Women’s Health Nurse Practitioners

Nurse practitioners cannot act as primary care providers for patients requiring assistance outside their scope of practice.

For instance, pediatric nurse practitioners cannot provide primary care providers to patients requiring mental health experts.

Nurse practitioners may receive additional education if they wish to change their specialization.

However, the process can be lengthy for careers that don’t provide much overlap.

Their state also determines a nurse practitioner’s scope of practice.

Limited/restricted practice states impose laws and regulations limiting a nurse practitioner’s medical liberties and freedoms.

As a result, it may be challenging for some nurse practitioners to complete specific duties without a doctor/physician’s supervision.

What Can Doctors do That Nurse Practitioners Cannot?

There is an overlap between doctors and nurse practitioners when providing primary care.

For instance, doctors and nurse practitioners can diagnose conditions, prescribe medications, and act as primary care providers.

They can also own and operate independent clinics to evaluate and treat patients within their state.

Nevertheless, their training, scope of practice, and medical liberties have distinct differences.

Medical doctors/physicians receive extensive medical education, enabling them to provide more comprehensive care.

It enables them to have a broader scope of practice without the limitations nurse practitioners encounter in restricted/reduced practice states.

1. Diagnose and Treat Complex Medical Conditions

Medical doctors receive comprehensive training in medicine, while nursing practitioners receive extensive training in nursing theory and practice.

As a result, medical doctors can diagnose and treat complex, rare, and difficult-to-detect medical conditions that nurse practitioners cannot.

Nurse practitioners evaluate, diagnose and treat common chronic and acute diseases and mental health conditions.

It includes typical illnesses like allergies, colds, diarrhea, headaches, flu, and stomach aches.

It also includes common diseases like arthritis, Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, strokes, and other conditions.

However, they may not have the education and training necessary to identify, evaluate and treat rare, complex, and hard-to-detect medical conditions.

Additional Resources:

2. Perform Advanced Procedures

Nurse practitioners perform various procedures to treat patients with common medical conditions.

These specialists assess, diagnose and manage everyday physical injuries, illnesses, and mental health conditions.

Treatment includes prescribing medications, developing care plans, and assisting with rehabilitation and mental health.

Nurse practitioners order and interpret tests, perform physical exams, and diagnose patients within their scope of practice.

Nevertheless, they cannot perform more complex procedures that require the expertise of those with medical degrees.

It includes treating rare and complex illnesses, injuries, or diseases outside their scope of practice.

Comparatively, medical doctors receive extensive education and training in medicine.

It enables them to identify, assess and treat medical conditions outside the domain of other professionals and specialists.

Additional Resources:


Doctors earn an MD (medical doctor) degree requiring 10 – 14 years of education.

It also requires students to spend ten thousand hours in a residency/fellowship program.

Nurse practitioners earn an MSN (master of science in nursing) or DNP (doctor of nursing practice) degree.

It requires 6 – 7 years of education to become an NP with an MSN degree from start to finish.

However, registered nurses with an existing BSN can obtain an MSN with 2 – 3 years of education.

The gap in education length and domain explains why medical doctors skillfully diagnose rare and complex conditions.

Nurse practitioners can assist the vast majority of patients with common conditions.

However, the expertise of a medical doctor is vital for treating complex and hard-to-treat illnesses, diseases, and ailments.

Nurse practitioners also specialize in a particular domain like pediatrics, family care, gerontology, or mental health.

It enables them to specialize in a particular domain and provide expert care to their patients.

Nurse practitioners specializing in one domain cannot diagnose or treat patients outside their discipline.

For instance, an NP specializing in neonatal care may not adequately diagnose adults without proper education/training.

Medical doctors typically receive extensive training for a broad range of patients.

It enables them to assess, diagnose and treat many distinct people, from infants to adults.

3. Prescriptive Authority in All States

As previously mentioned, licensed nurse practitioners can prescribe medications to patients within their scope of practice.

However, a nurse practitioner’s prescriptive liberties and range vary greatly depending on their state.

Some states significantly limit the types of medications NPs can prescribe.

In addition, they may require oversight by a physician/doctor to perform specific duties.

Medical doctors have much fewer restrictions regarding prescriptive authority.

As a result, these medical professionals can prescribe medications without supervision from other doctors/physicians.

They may also have more freedom regarding the medications/substances they prescribe to patients.