If you find yourself in need of nursing care, you probably aren’t going to be aware of the credentials of the person caring for you—you’re just focused on doing what needs to be done to feel better. But if you’re considering a career in nursing, it’s important to know the different levels of education involved in the profession, as there are key differences in training and responsibilities.
The healthcare field has no shortage of seemingly similar-sounding job titles, and that’s certainly true of the registered nurse (RN) and the nurse practitioner (NP) roles. While both have “nurse” in the name, there are some critical distinctions you should be aware of as you explore potential career options.
To help you get these roles sorted out, we’ve asked healthcare professionals to weigh in and provide an overview of some of the key differences. Let’s start by taking a look at each role individually.
What is a registered nurse (RN)?
A registered nurse (RN) is a person who has earned either an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree in nursing, passed the NCLEX-RN® licensure exam and has met all other requirements for obtaining a state license to practice as an RN. You can find RNs working in a wide variety of healthcare settings where they provide direct patient care.
“RNs have a scope of practice that includes selecting and providing nursing care and interventions along with carrying out orders from NPs, physician assistants and MDs/DOs,” Dr. Jenna Liphart Rhoads, a nurse and advisor at Nurse Together.
What is a nurse practitioner (NP)?
A nurse practitioner is an advanced practice registered nurse with an expanded scope of responsibilities. Prospective nurse practitioners must first obtain RN licensure and then complete a graduate-level Nurse Practitioner program—either a Doctor of Nursing Practice or Master of Science in Nursing. Like RNs, prospective nurse practitioners must also pass a certification exam as well as meet all other state-determined eligibility requirements needed to practice.
What this additional education and training amount to in a work setting is a larger scope of practice and more autonomy over care decisions.
“A nurse practitioner goes through additional schooling and gains the skills needed to take on a more autonomous role when treating patients,” says Kenny Kadar, president of Coast Medical Service.
While there are certainly differences in training, regulation and overall authority between the roles, an outside observer might not easily detect much difference between an NP and a medical doctor when interacting with patients.
“NPs can do much of the same work that doctors do in a variety of settings that includes rounding on in-patient units, seeing patients in clinics independently, performing procedures, writing orders and prescribing medications,” says Liphart Rhoads.
It should be noted that across the United States, there are different regulations regarding the scope of practice for nurse practitioners. Some states do not allow NPs to prescribe certain medications while others require them to work under a supervising physician—and the details of how that supervision takes form can vary by state. For more details on what each state allows, the American Association of Nurse Practitioners® provides a state-by-state overview of licensure and practice laws for nurse practitioners.