Nurse Practitioner vs Medical Doctor | Similarities and Differences

Nurse practitioners and medical doctors provide primary care to many individuals.

For instance, these medical professionals order and interpret diagnostic tests, diagnose medical conditions, prescribe medications, and develop and implement treatment plans.

Numerous responsibilities overlap among nurse practitioners and medical doctors in full-practice states.

However, there are also primary differences between nurse practitioners and doctors.

Firstly, medical doctors receive more extensive education and training than nurse practitioners.

As a result, they have a broader scope of practice and clinical aptitude when treating a wide range of medical conditions.

It allows medical doctors to diagnose rare and complex medical conditions that nurse practitioners and physician assistants cannot.

Nurse practitioners must also work with a collaborating physician to perform specific duties in reduced or restricted practice states.

A nurse practitioner can perform most patient care by diagnosing and treating common medical conditions.

However, they may require a collaborating physician to sign off on specific actions or procedures.

Nurse practitioners in full-practice states can work independently without a collaborating physician.

Ultimately, a nurse practitioner’s specialization and scope of practice determine their duties.

There are numerous differences in education/training, salary, and work capacities among NPs and MDs.

Nevertheless, nurse practitioners are significant in providing primary patient care, especially in underserved areas.

They ensure patients receive adequate, timely care by accommodating and treating common medical conditions and illnesses/diseases.

As a result, they fill a vital gap in the healthcare system when medical doctors cannot provide the necessary care.

The following section covers the differences between NPs and MDs to understand each professional background better.

NP vs. MD Responsibilities

There are numerous overlapping duties among nurse practitioners and medical doctors.

For instance, both occupations obtain health histories, interpret diagnostic tests, and diagnose medical conditions.

They also initiate and manage treatment plans, prescribe medications, and operate clinics.

Nurse Practitioner Duties

A nurse practitioner’s education and training focus on a particular specialization.

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

Accordingly, nurse practitioners working in mental health cannot specialize in pediatrics and vice versa without adequate education and training.

However, they can pursue the appropriate certifications and education to work in other specializations.

The difficulty in switching careers depends on the other disciplines’ complexity and overlap with their current occupation.

In short, nurse practitioners are limited regarding their scope of practice to their specialization and state regulations.

Nevertheless, they can make career shifts if they are willing to pursue the training and certifications necessary for the desired career.

Nurse practitioners can perform physical assessments, obtain health histories, diagnose common medical conditions, prescribe medications, and initiate treatments when treating patients.

They can also order and interpret diagnostic tests, perform minor procedures like suturing (depending on regulations) and assist medical doctors with surgeries.

Finally, nurse practitioners supervise RNs, LPNs, and other healthcare staff.

However, medical doctors may supervise nurse practitioners due to their extensive training and medical background.

Nurse Practitioner Responsibilities

  • Perform physical assessments
  • Obtain health histories
  • Diagnose common medical conditions/illnesses
  • Initiate and manage treatments
  • Prescribe medications
  • Order and interpret diagnostic tests
  • Assist an MD or DO with surgeries (depending on the domain)
  • Manages RNs, LPNs, and other healthcare staff
  • Duties vary depending on full, reduced, or restricted practice laws

Medical Doctor Duties

MDs receive extensive training and education in medical school to diagnose and treat complex medical conditions and illnesses.

They also participate in comprehensive residency/fellowship programs to correctly manage and treat the most severe medical conditions.

It takes approximately 10 – 14 years to become a medical doctor.

Thus, these medical professionals have a more comprehensive scope of practice than nurse practitioners and physician assistants.

Medical doctors assess, diagnose and treat some of the rarest and most complex conditions other medical professionals cannot.

As a result, NPs or PAs may consult an MD or refer a patient when they cannot diagnose a particular condition properly.

Medical doctors supervise nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and registered nurses to ensure optimal patient outcomes.

The following list comprises some of the responsibilities MDs are tasked to perform.

Medical Doctor Responsibilities:

  • Perform physical assessments
  • Obtain health histories
  • Diagnose rare and complex medical conditions
  • Initiate and manage more comprehensive treatments
  • Prescribe medications
  • Order and interpret diagnostic tests
  • Perform complex surgeries (MD or DO)
  • Manage NPs, PAs, and RNs
  • Highest leadership position
  • Full practice authority in all states

Education

Physicians earn an MD (medical doctor) degree requiring 10 – 14 years of education and ten thousand hours in a residency/fellowship program.

Medical doctors receive extensive education allowing them to have more knowledge and expertise than NPs and PAs.

As a result, they often collaborate with and provide oversight to NPs and PAs.

Medical doctors are also the leaders of many healthcare teams, making definitive diagnoses, developing treatment plans, and accountability for patient outcomes.

It’s important to mention that gaining entry into medical school is more complex than getting into PA or NP school. 

Medical school is also more expensive than PA or NP school.

Finally, it’s more difficult for medical doctors to change careers if they no longer desire their current specialization.

Physician Education Requirements:

  • Bachelor’s degree (4 years)
  • Medical school (4 years)
  • Clinical clerkships (6,000+ hours)
  • Residency +/- Fellowship 10,000+ hours (3-4 years)
  • Attending physician (able to become independent providers)

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

It requires 6 – 7 years of education for students to become an NP from start to finish or 2 – 3 years of education for registered nurses with a BSN degree.

Notably, registered nurses pursuing an MSN degree part-time require up to 5 years of education to earn their MSN. 

Many registered nurses also pursue their nurse practitioner certification after working for 5 – 15 years.

It allows them to gain extensive experience in the medical field and determine the career they want before deciding on a nurse practitioner path.

However, there is no minimum required length of time to pursue an MSN or DNP degree and become a nurse practitioner.

Aspiring students can directly pursue advanced education after becoming licensed registered nurses.

Advanced education students must select a specialty before participating in a nurse practitioner program.

Their chosen specialization determines their education, the patients they provide care to, and their overall scope of practice.

For instance, students pursuing an MSN degree focused on neonatal care can work as neonatal nurse practitioners.

If they prefer to become mental health nurses, they must pursue the proper education and certifications to change careers.

That said, some specializations are easier to switch to if there is enough overlap in training, education, and certifications.

Nurse Practitioner Education Requirements:

  • BSN degree (4 years)
  • 800 – 1000 + hours of clinicals
  • Pass NCLEX-RN examination
  • Postgraduate degree (2 – 5 years)
  • 600-800+ hours of clinical experience
  • No formal residency required
  • Become certified (able to work as a nurse practitioner)

Overall Time Investment

There is a significant difference in time investment for nurse practitioners and medical doctors/physicians.

For instance, some nursing students become nurse practitioners in 6 – 7 years from start to finish with no previous nursing degree.

Many nursing students first pursue a registered nurse degree, which requires 2 – 4 years of schooling.

It allows students to become registered nurses, earn money and obtain work experience significantly faster than those pursuing an MD degree.

Registered nurses determine whether to pursue an NP degree or spend several years working as an RN.

Some registered nurses work for 5 – 15 years before returning to school to become nurse practitioners.

That said, registered nurses with a BSN degree can pursue further education directly after obtaining their BSN.

As a result, they can earn their master’s or doctorate in as little as 2 – 3 years.

Altogether an individual can become a nurse practitioner in 6 – 7 years without prior nursing experience.

Medical doctors/physicians require 10 – 14 years of education and training to become licensed independent providers.

These medical professionals must also participate in a residency/fellowship program requiring ten thousand hours to earn their license.

As a result, it takes some medical doctors twice as long to become licensed compared to nurse practitioners.

The Importance of Collaboration

Physicians attend medical school and receive extensive medical training.

It allows them to interpret more complex medical conditions and provide extensive care in areas nurse practitioners and PAs cannot.

Nevertheless, nurse practitioners develop excellent training and education through years of NP school.

These medical professionals diagnose and treat diverse medical conditions, prescribe medications, and provide vital primary care.

As a result, nurse practitioners play an indispensable role in patient care, especially in underserved areas/departments.

Nurse practitioners are critical when physicians cannot provide adequate care due to insufficient staff or an unexpected patient surge.

Medical doctors ensure patients with the most severe and rare conditions/illnesses receive optimal care to improve patient outcomes.

These professionals are fundamental to the functionality of a sustainable and timely healthcare system.

However, a limited number of medical doctors are available to provide adequate patient care, especially concerning common medical conditions.

Thus, the demand for highly trained and educated nurse practitioners ensures that most patients receive excellent medical care.

By working together, NPs and MDs use their expertise to provide adequate patient care, recovery, and outcomes.

NP and MD Differences

There are several critical differences between nurse practitioners and medical doctors.

For instance, medical doctors treat a more comprehensive scope of patient conditions due to their medical background and training.

MDs assess, diagnose, and treat rare or complex conditions NPs, PAs, and other specialists cannot identify or manage.

They also play a considerable leadership role and advise/oversee nurse practitioners and physician assistants in specific settings.

Overall, MDs have a broader scope of practice, provide more comprehensive diagnoses and treat more complex conditions/illnesses.

MDs and DOs also perform complex surgeries that nurse practitioners and physician assistants cannot achieve.

Nurse practitioners diagnose and treat common medical conditions.

However, they’re limited to treating patients within their specialization and scope of practice.

Nurse practitioners cannot diagnose and treat rare or complex conditions requiring a physician’s expertise.

That said, most common medical conditions fall within a nurse practitioner’s scope of practice allowing them to provide immediate and necessary care to a wide range of patients.

Lastly, medical doctors earn more on average than nurse practitioners due to their expertise and medical background.

However, there are some lower-paying doctor specializations where nurse practitioners earn more than their doctor counterparts.

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