Doctors vs. Nurse Practitioners: What's the Difference?

Doctors vs. Nurse Practitioners: What's the Difference?

June 12, 2013
by Michael Barber
Doctors vs. Nurse Practitioners: What's the Difference?

Determining whether you need a traditional doctor or a nurse practitioner can be difficult, especially if you aren't sure how they differ. Here is a guide to understanding the differences between MDs and NPs.

Educational Differences

An MD is a doctor of medicine. Doctors are able to diagnose conditions, treat patients for all ailments, and write prescriptions. While a doctor may refer a patient for specialized care, such as to a neurologist, the physician has a well-rounded education that overlaps with all specialties. An NP is a nurse practitioner. This is sometimes confused with an RN, which is a registered nurse. Whereas the RN cannot prescribe medications, the nurse practitioner is licensed to do so, as well as diagnose conditions. Some states and cities have differing laws and regulations that require physicians to oversee NPs, but other areas allow NPs to work without oversight. In 34 states around the country nurse practitioners are lobbying the government to lift restrictions that are impairing their ability to help patients. Currently, only 16 states allow NPs to work without the encumbrance of MD supervision. NPs are sometimes called the bridge that connects RNs and MDs: they have two-years more education than registered nurses, but they have less training than MDs. Also, it is key to remember that an NP is licensed by the Nursing Board, whereas doctors are licensed by the Medical Doctor's Board.

The Difference in Accessibility

The United States is facing shortages of doctors all over the country, particularly in primary care. Because of this, many hospitals, private clinics, and urgent care locations are relying upon nurse practitioners to fill the excess need. Patients who demand to see traditional physicians may experience longer waiting periods before appointments, whereas patients who accept NPs could receive care more expediently. Because of this, many urgent care centers and walk-in and retail clinics are staffing nurse practitioners instead of physicians. For the services offered by the majority of urgent cares, NPs are fully licensed and capable of treating all illnesses and injuries. That said, if you have a desire to be seen by a doctor at an urgent care, do some research on your local clinic to make sure they staff physicians.

How Healthcare Is Changing

While the growing number of nurse practitioners could fill the need for more doctors in the US, many doctors are fighting not to let NPs care for patients without supervision. According to Bloomberg Business Week the United States is facing a shortage of 13,000 doctors, which could grow to more than 130,000 within 12 years. Meanwhile, there are 155,000 NPs willing to fill that need. In the near future, that could spell more freedom for NPs to practice without supervision, particularly in urgent care settings and with the roll-out of healthcare reform whereby creating the need for greater accessibility and care team accountability. Understanding the difference between nurse practitioners and traditional physicians can be difficult, because in many cases the job descriptions overlap. The key differences are that many states require NPs to have physician supervision, and that medical doctors have much more extensive and comprehensive training.