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, especially after making a last-minute appointment. 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.

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

Category

Nurse Practitioner

Doctor

Education and Training

Six to eight years postsecondary

11+ years postsecondary

Licensed

Oversees complicated cases

Varies 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 surgery

Assists

Prescribes controlled substances

Prescribes medications

Delivers babies

Varies by state

Performs physical exams

Practices independently

Varies by state

 

By Heidi Tyline King

If you’re in the Los Angeles area and looking to see a doctor or nurse practitioner, schedule an appointment at Keck Medicine of USC by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or visiting http://keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment/.