When it comes to working in medicine, there are many different career paths that can empower you to improve and save patient lives. Some people choose to work as an occupational therapist, helping patients recover after major illness, injury, or surgery. Others choose to work in nursing, as either a registered nurse (RN) or a nurse practitioner (NP). Others still choose to become a physician (MD or DO).

These final two career options—nurse practitioners vs. doctors—are often considered side by side by those aspiring to work in the field. But what are the differences between nurse practitioners and doctors, and how does each profession affect your livelihood and the lives of the patients you serve?

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Below is an overview of the roles of both nurse practitioners and doctors, as well as a discussion about the fundamental differences between them so you can decide which career is best for you.

What do Nurse Practitioners do?

A nurse practitioner works directly with patients, and is typically responsible for providing urgent, primary, and specialty care to a specific population of people. In this role, NPs can drastically change a patient’s experience (and life!).

Depending on the U.S. state in which a nurse practitioner works, their role can be just as important as a physician’s. This is because NPs can provide care without a physician’s oversight.

Most common NP duties include recording and tracking patient medical histories, collecting patient samples and data, ordering lab tests, observing patients, creating treatment plans, performing small medical procedures, managing RNs and other staff members, and working within their team of healthcare professionals to create treatment plans.

As a nurse practitioner, you’ll have the option of working in multiple settings, ranging from hospitals, emergency rooms, government agencies, surgical clinics, managed care facilities, and even in patient homes.

What do Doctors and Physicians do?

Like nurse practitioners, doctors provide direct medical care to their patients. While doctors are often involved in direct patient care, they also spend large portions of their days performing patient examinations, running diagnostic tests, studying medical histories, and educating patients on long-term healthcare.

A primary difference between physicians and NPs is the fact that all doctors can prescribe medication to patients as a part of their duties. Nurse practitioners also prescribe medicine, but in some states they must be directly overseen by a doctor or physician in order to do so.

Generally speaking, the responsibility of doctors will typically include:

  • Diagnosing and treating injuries and illnesses
  • Tracking and updating patient medical histories, current findings, and treatments
  • Ordering lab and diagnostic tests for staff to perform
  • Reviewing and analyzing test results
  • Recommending, creating, and prescribing treatment plans
  • Educating patients and family members about proper health
  • Referring patients to other medical professionals as necessary
  • Collaborating with health professionals
  • Staying current on medical technologies and research

According to the American Medical Association (AMA), MDs and DOs commonly work in four types of practice settings: Private individual practice; private group practice with equity; group clinic, hospital, or healthcare systems; and in academic institutions. Within these practices, MDs and DOs can specialize in areas such as anesthesiology, family and general practice, pediatrics, gynecology, surgery, cardiology, dermatology, neurology, and other areas.

Differences Between Nurse Practitioners and Doctors

In addition to the differences in role and responsibilities discussed above, nurse practitioners and doctors are different in other important ways, including their educational requirements and compensation.

1. Training and Education

If you want to practice as a nurse practitioner or a doctor, you’ll need to complete the education and training requirements to gain licensure.

To become an NP, you’ll need to first earn your registered nurse license by completing a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) and passing the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX). You’ll then need to complete a graduate degree in nursing, such as a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). From start to finish, it can take anywhere from six to eight years to become a nurse practitioner, though it is important to note that many nurses choose to spend some time working in between earning their degrees.

To become a certified physician, you’ll need to acquire your BS in pre-medicine or related field, take and pass the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT), apply for medical school to earn your MD or DO, complete a residency program, and pass medical license exams in the state for which you want to work. You may even earn additional board certifications. In total, it takes about 10 to 14 years to become a fully licensed physician.

2. Salary and Job Outlook

No matter which career path you choose, you’ll earn a generous salary and quality benefits. On average, nurse practitioners earn $115,800 per year ($55.67 hourly), according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Employment for NPs is projected to grow 45 percent from 2019-2029.

Physicians, on the other hand, earn an average annual salary of $208,000 ($100 per hour) according to the BLS. The number of physician job openings is projected to grow by roughly seven percent between 2018 and 2028. This is faster than the growth rate for all careers, but admittedly slower than the rate for nurse practitioners.

Two Key Roles in Medicine

Whether you choose to practice as a nurse practitioner or a doctor, working in healthcare is an incredibly rewarding career. Not only does it offer steady pay and career stability, but it gives you the opportunity to make a real, lasting impact on the patients that you treat.

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