Nurse Vs. Nurse Practitioner: What's the Difference

Nurse practitioners and nurses are both healthcare workers specializing in patient care, rehabilitation and the education of patients and their families. Aside from education, one of the biggest differences is that nurse practitioners can prescribe medications. Continue reading to learn more.

What's the Difference Between a Nurse and a Nurse Practitioner?


Registered nurses focus on treating and educating patients while assisting medical doctors. They often help patients establish a plan of care, and their responsibilities may include rehabilitative activities, such as administering medication, maintaining fluid IV lines, administering therapy and recording patient observations for doctors' assessments. Registered nurses also work in public health settings and may be involved in establishing community health centers and maintaining a way of life for patients and families throughout a specific area.


Aspiring nurses have three educational pathways from which to choose. The first is to pursue an associate's degree in nursing, which allows the graduate to go into an entry-level position as a registered nurse. Administered by hospitals, a diploma is another option and involves both classroom and on-site clinical training. Both of these programs take 2-3 years to complete.

Students may also opt to earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). This degree program lasts four years and mixes nursing courses with general education and humanities classes. This final option allows graduates to enter advanced degree programs in nursing. Registered nurses with bachelor's degrees may also earn more pay than their counterparts with lesser degrees.

All three options qualify graduates to take the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses. Students must pass this test to become registered and obtain their mandatory license.

Nurse Practitioner

Nurse practitioners are advanced practice nurses who are able to prescribe medications, unlike registered nurses. Similar to registered nurses, nurse practitioners can practice primary care or specialize in such areas as women's health, neonatology or pediatrics. They often perform duties outside the realms of a registered nurse, including ordering and performing diagnostic tests and x-rays, treating chronic conditions like diabetes and infections, managing patients' overall care and counseling patients.


The only way to become a nurse practitioner involves earning a master's degree in nursing or higher. Students need to have a bachelor's degree prior to applying to a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program. Although individuals with a bachelor's degree in another field may apply, a BSN is the recommended background. Many MSN programs encourage applicants to work as a registered nurse for at least a year before applying. Students generally take two years to complete the master's degree in nursing.

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