Everyday Health

What’s the Difference Between a Medical Doctor and a Nurse Practitioner?

Originally published April 26, 2018

Last reviewed January 7, 2022

Reading Time: 1 minute

So, you made a doctor’s appointment — but you ended up seeing a nurse practitioner. What’s the difference between the two? And should you see one instead of the other?

It’s common for patients to see a nurse practitioner in a doctor’s office. Whether or not that makes a difference to the care you receive depends on both your medical needs and where you live.

A doctor attends medical school and completes a residency before receiving certification, a process that takes about 11 years of postsecondary education and training. A nurse practitioner completes six to eight years of postsecondary training: four years in nursing school and two to four years in a graduate nursing program.

In terms of care, the responsibilities of doctors and nurse practitioners overlap. Both diagnose patients and prescribe medications; however, there are some differences. For example, doctors can admit patients to the hospital, but nurse practitioners cannot.

The following chart covers the general differences between these two types of health care providers.

CategoryNurse PractitionerDoctor
Education and TrainingSix to eight years postsecondary11+ years postsecondary
Licensed
Oversees complicated casesVaries by state
Diagnoses chronic and acute conditions
Orders, conducts and interprets diagnostic tests such as X-rays and lab work
Counsels patients on health topics such as lifestyle choices, disease prevention and nutrition
Can specialize in variety of areas, including oncology, gerontology, family health, pediatrics, women’s health and psychiatry
Performs surgeryAssists
Prescribes controlled substances
Prescribes medications
Delivers babiesVaries by state
Performs physical exams
Practices independentlyVaries by state

Topics

health care providers
medical doctor
nurse practitioner
Heidi Tyline King
Heidi Tyline King is a former magazine editor who has written for numerous national publications.