Nurse Practitioner vs. RN: Expertise in Nursing

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Are you currently a licensed RN in the U.S.?

Nursing creates opportunities to change lives in numerous ways. Professional nurses work in a variety of settings and can fill many roles. Two prominent roles are those of registered nurse (RN) and nurse practitioner (NP). While both are crucial to providing care delivery that can improve patient outcomes, they approach this goal differently.

If you’re working toward a nursing degree and are interested in long-term nursing success, deciding between a nurse practitioner vs. RN career is an important choice. It’s worth considering what NPs and RNs do in their day-to-day work, as well as the paths to get there.

Nurse Practitioner Overview

Nurse practitioners have gone beyond their undergraduate schooling to earn an advanced degree, such as a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). While nurse practitioners often begin their careers as registered nurses, advanced education is required to move into the more specialized role.

The advanced skill set of nurse practitioners allows them to take on more clinical responsibilities, including diagnosing and treating illnesses. On the path to becoming a nurse practitioner, students take a wide range of science courses covering anatomy, physiology, and chemistry. They then follow this coursework by acquiring direct clinical experience. They also tend to choose one of many nurse practitioner specializations, such as primary care, pediatric care, or mental health care. Nurse practitioners in training refine their leadership skills, resourcefulness, communication skills, and empathy.

After earning advanced degrees and securing roles as nurse practitioners, graduates can coordinate patient care and provide either general healthcare or care in a specialty, such as cardiovascular health, orthopedics, or urology. Nurse practitioners carry out a wide array of tasks, from ordering patient tests or X-rays to administering medication and consulting with patients and doctors about the best treatment plans. They may also be able to prescribe medications if they work in a state that allows full prescriptive authority. Nurse practitioners can administer different types of care under unique advanced practice nursing professions, such as nurse anesthetists or nurse midwives.

A smiling nurse stands in front of other caregivers.

RN Overview

Aspiring registered nurses can choose to earn either a two-year associate degree or a four-year bachelor’s degree, such as Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). BSN students immerse themselves in the study of anatomy, physiology, microbiology, and psychology. Those who pursue a BSN delve deeper into the topics that will enhance their clinical skills. Graduates must apply for licensure with their state’s nursing board, as well as pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN).

Regardless of whether future RNs earn an associate or bachelor’s degree, they will likely work with patients in a capacity that requires empathy, strong communication skills, and attention to detail. Daily tasks often include performing diagnostic tests and assessing the results, administering medication, operating medical equipment, and guiding patients through each step of their care plans.

Once certified, RNs can pursue rewarding careers in a variety of healthcare settings, including hospitals, community clinics, hospice centers, mental health clinics, and emergency clinics. RNs take charge of planning and coordinating patient care, working with physicians to ensure the best possible outcomes for patients.

Nurse Practitioner vs. RN: The Similarities

Nurse practitioners and registered nurses share the common goal of optimizing healthcare — to provide the best patient care possible. Yet there are a few other common threads between the two roles that are worth noting.

Work Environments

RNs and NPs help patients in a wide variety of medical settings, including hospitals, long-term care facilities, and urgent care clinics. These environments may shape the interactions and assistance they provide to physicians and other medical professionals.

Patient Relations

In both positions, nurses often work directly with patients and their families. These interactions help develop strong relationships and positive rapport, which can lead to improved health outcomes.

Licensing Requirements

Nurse practitioners and RNs both need licenses to practice and may need to seek additional certifications depending on the area of work. These requirements vary by state, and it is up to the individual to understand these requirements regardless of career path.

Skill Sets

RNs and NPs should have strong detail-oriented and critical-thinking competencies as well as great interpersonal skills. It is also important that those in either role have certain characteristics that complement the patient/nurse dynamic, such as compassion.

Nurse Practitioner vs. RN: The Differences

Although nurse practitioners and RNs both work with patients, there are key differences between a nurse practitioner versus RN.

Educational Paths for RNs and NPs

The RN position is one of the first stops on the path toward nursing career advancement. Aspiring nurses often begin by entering an RN program, which provides the opportunity to gain academic and clinical experience. Those who choose to remain at the RN level can carve out a lifelong career for themselves with only an associate degree and state licensure.

Future nurse practitioners need to pursue advanced education and potentially additional licenses. These mid-level roles require an MSN. Both an MSN and licensure offer students the opportunity to specialize and hone their leadership skills.

Differing Daily Responsibilities

Nurse practitioners, having earned an advanced degree and more specialization, have more autonomy in making decisions for their patients. For example, they can interpret diagnostics and medical tests, create plans for treatment, and even prescribe medicine. Thanks to their in-depth knowledge of the nursing profession, they may choose to step into leadership roles that influence health policy, conducting quality improvement projects, and advocating for change at an organizational level. Furthermore, NPs who pursue a doctorate can specialize in research, administration, or education.

RNs cannot diagnose or prescribe medicine. Instead, they typically care for the day-to-day needs of patients, keeping records of their symptoms, assisting doctors, and monitoring patient progress. They may also work to teach patients and the community about health and wellness, and guide patients and their families to choose the best course of treatment.

Nurse Practitioner vs. RN: Salaries and Job Outlook

Nurse practitioner and registered nurse positions offer solid, well-paying career opportunities.

Nurse Practitioner Salary and Job Outlook

The nursing field is experiencing tremendous growth in response to increased healthcare needs. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts job opportunities for nurse practitioners will grow 52% between 2020 and 2030. This projected growth is encouraging for RNs considering a future as nurse practitioners. The BLS reports the median annual salary of nurse practitioners was $120,680 in 2021. This salary may vary depending on specialty, experience, job location, and other factors.

RN Salary and Job Outlook

Like nurse practitioners, RNs are benefiting from the growth in the healthcare field. The BLS projects a 9% increase in the number of RN jobs between 2020 and 2030. The median annual salary for RNs in 2021 was $77,600, according to the BLS. Salary may vary based on experience, certifications, the hiring organization, and geographic region.

Transitioning from an RN to an NP

Because NPs require at least a master’s degree, RNs must complete an advanced degree program to assume this role. The first step of this process for some RNs who do not have a bachelor’s is to enroll in a bridge program such as an RN to BSN degree. From there, they can pursue an advanced degree outright or through another bridge program, such as a BSN to DNP program. Experience is also a key component, as most graduate programs require applicants to have worked as RNs prior to enrollment.

Nurse Practitioner vs. RN: Which Is Right for You?

If you’re beginning your patient care career, earning your RN certification is a solid first step. If you’re a practicing RN looking to advance your nursing future, Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Science in Nursing (RN to BSN) degree can help you take the next step.

If you’re interested in more autonomy and responsibility, an advanced degree may be for you. Nurse practitioners with DNPs can step into leadership roles that can make an impact on the healthcare system, from individual patients to entire institutions. See how Maryville University’s online MSN or online BSN to DNP program can help you advance your nursing career.

Recommended Reading

How Nurses Impact Quality of Care

NCLEX Study Tips and Resources for Students

The Top 8 Nonclinical Skills Needed to Be an Excellent Nurse

Sources

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, State Practice Environment

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, What’s a Nurse Practitioner (NP)?

National Council of State Boards of Nursing, NCLEX & Other Exams

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered Nurses