Registered Nurse Vs. Nurse Practitioner: What are The Differences?

Those interested in nursing may have noticed the field contains numerous specialties and roles. Nurses can advance and even overhaul their careers by switching positions or picking a new specialty. Many nurses start as registered nurses (RNs) and then complete advanced degrees and certifications that allow them to pick new specialties or advance their careers. At the highest levels, they might even become nurse practitioners (NPs).

Registered Nurses and Nursing Practitioners

Nurse practitioners and registered nurses are all involved in providing the care patients need. There is a lot of overlap between the two positions, but there are also significant differences between them.

RNs provide direct care while NPs hold advanced degrees, usually Doctor of Nursing Practice degrees, and can perform more advanced tasks. In many states, they have similar responsibilities to physicians.

In this article, we will be looking at both nursing roles so you can better understand what they are and what they entail.

What is a Registered Nurse?

Before we look at what a registered nurse is, we have to understand the different categories of nurses. The three main ones are degree, advanced degree, and non-degree.

Nurses who go the non-degree route become licensed practical nurses (LNPs) or certified nursing assistants (CNAs) but the programs they complete do not hand out degrees. The Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) degree and Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) routes are the most common options for nurses.

Lastly, we have those who complete a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). Before you can enroll in these advanced programs, you need to be a registered nurse.

A registered nurse is someone who has completed an ASN or BSN degree and then passed their nursing exam. Once they do both, they are qualified to work as registered nurses.

Registered Nurse Responsibilities

As mentioned, registered nurses are primary caregivers who work directly with patients. They have a very broad range of responsibilities depending on their assigned role.

They can administer medication, take orders from physicians and nurse practitioners, contribute to plans of care, and complete admissions. Ensure blood products are available, administer dialysis and chemotherapy, and more.

Registered nurses are also tasked with counseling patients and families, and charting both patient data and behavior, which is one of their more important roles.

These nurses can also be tasked with overseeing LNPs and CNAs.

Registered nurses have so many career opportunities available to them, including some unique specializations like travel and flight nursing.

Where Registered Nurses Work

Most registered nurses work in clinical or hospital settings, but some of them work outside the hospital. A registered nurse can work in a school, senior living facility, in the military, and even for individual businesses.

Apart from work settings the types of demographics they work with also vary a lot. Depending on their specializations, they might work with infants and young children in pediatrics, with whole families in family medicine, with senior citizens in geriatrics, with substance abuse patients in rehabilitation, and with emergency patients in ambulatory care.

All this means that registered nurses have numerous career opportunities depending on how wide or narrow they want the scope of their work to be.

What is a Nurse Practitioner?

A nurse practitioner is an advanced nurse who can treat patients without the direct supervision of a physician. Their scope of practice is advanced and very wide, meaning they can take on many more duties than registered nurses.

They can combine clinical and nursing expertise with diagnosis and treatments, making them highly sought after.  Nurse practitioners are also responsible for health management and disease prevention.

Because of their advanced knowledge, many states allow them to run their own practices. Because of this, they make healthcare more accessible by increasing the number of facilities where patients can get the care they need. This is especially important in rural settings where there might be a shortage of physicians.

To become a nurse practitioner, you need to complete a master’s or doctoral program and have extensive experience in nursing. To get into leadership roles, though, you need to have a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree.

If you already hold a master’s degree, you can enroll in an online MSN to DNP program, which is an accelerated program for advanced practice registered nurses. Once you complete the program, you can choose to provide direct patient care or influence healthcare systems and outcomes by helping with policy implementation or leadership.

Nurse Practitioner Responsibilities

Their tasks and responsibilities depend largely on the settings they work in. Some of their responsibilities include diagnosing and treating infections, injuries, and illnesses, treating acute infections and injuries in their offices, and ordering and reviewing x-rays and electrocardiograms.

They also gather patient data that they include in patient reports, educate patients and communities, prescribe medication in states they are allowed to, and provide primary health care depending on what is allowed in their state.

Where Nurse Practitioners Work

Nurse practitioners can work in the usual hospital and clinic settings, although they have many other options. They can work in specialty hospitals, different health systems, long-term care facilities, community health clinics, and urgent care centers.

Nurse practitioners can also establish independent practices or work for industrial complexes and insurance companies.

Difference Between Primary Care and Direct Care

Registered nurses are responsible for providing direct patient care while nursing practitioners provide primary patient care. What is the difference? Direct patient care is meant to deal with an immediate need. This could be pain or a condition. For example, a registered nurse might clean a wound thus addressing that specific need.

Primary care is meant to assess, diagnose, and treat illnesses and injuries. This process often involves a thorough assessment and then a prescription for the medication the patient needs.

Both primary care and direct care go hand in hand to give the patient the best outcome possible.


Another difference between registered nurses and nurse practitioners is the specialties they can get into. Registered nurses get into specialties where they focus on a specific medical setting or unit. Nurse practitioners, on the other hand, focus on whole populations.

Some specialties for registered nurses include:

  • Operating room nursing where nurses work with patients who are preparing to go into surgery.
  • Critical care nursing where nurses stabilize and treat patients with acute illnesses and injuries
  • Emergency room nursing for nurses who treat patients who need emergency care
  • Labor and delivery nursing for nurses who want to help with the childbirth process
  • Pediatric nurses who provide care to babies and children. These nurses usually work in general hospital settings.
  • School nurses provide care and ensure in school settings to ensure the wellness and health of the students they care for.

Some common specializations or nurse practitioners include:

  • Geriatric nurse practitioners who work with older patients. They also work closely with their families to ensure they continue getting the care they need even when they are away from the hospital.
  • Family nurse practitioners who provide primary care to patients of all ages. They also offer counseling, education, and other services to the patients they care for.
  • Neonatal nurse practitioners who provide advanced care in delivery units and labor wards. They also work in neonatal ICUs.
  • Women’s health nurse practitioners specialize in providing care to women with an emphasis on gynecologic and reproductive health.


This is another massive difference between the two career options. Because it is an advanced position, nurse practitioners are often paid much more than registered nurses. Another reason for the discrepancy is the roles both types of nurses have.

A nurse practitioner has more advanced roles, responsibilities, and autonomy than a registered nurse. By running private practices, nurse practitioners can also earn a lot more than they would in certain healthcare settings which is another factor that brings up the national average.


You do not need any experience to enroll in a nursing program when you are starting out. You only need to have the right high school qualifications and nursing schools will accept you. However, you will need about 400 hours of clinical training before you can become a registered nurse.

Once you do, you do not need much experience to land a job as a nurse. It will help, however, if you have experience in a healthcare setting such as a clinic or private practice setting. Administrative roles are a common source of experience for nurses.

To become a nurse practitioner, you need experience that you include in your CV, which a lot of universities now require for enrollment into these advanced programs. You also need about 500 hours of clinical training.

Continuing Education

Some states require that you keep learning and earning certifications to retain your licensing. These programs entail continuing education units, and each unit comes with a certification.

It might seem like a hassle, but advanced programs such as DNP programs require an unencumbered license to enroll in their programs.

If there is a break in your licensing because you did not complete some requirements, your career advancement might be hindered.

Choosing Between a Registered Nursing Path and a Nurse Practitioner Path

Now that you know the similarities and differences between the two, which of them should you choose? Both of these options come with their pros and cons. If you have just graduated, you might not have the experience you need to take an advanced degree to become a nurse practitioner.

You will therefore have to be a registered nurse for some time. The good news here is that there are lots of certifications that allow you to go into areas that are of interest to you.

Additionally, healthcare facilities are always looking for registered nurses because of the ongoing nursing crisis so just getting started enough so you see where things go.

If you pay close attention to detail, are organized and confident, and like dealing with people, becoming a registered nurse could be great for you. Because charting is crucial in nursing, you must also be detail-oriented and not mind the manual work that this entails.

You must also remain calm under pressure and be able to think quickly on your feet because nurses sometimes need to do this when responding to difficult situations.

Being a registered nurse for some time also gives you time to think about your career and where you want it to go. There are lots of senior positions you can aspire to even as a registered nurse, and you get time to think about all this.

Being a Nurse Practitioner

Everyone wants to do something different later in their career and if this sounds like you, being a nurse practitioner is something you should aspire to. Nurse practitioners work with patients and communities directly, providing a lot more than health care in clinical and hospital settings.

Being a nurse practitioner can also give you lots of autonomy if you live in a state where you can start a practice. One thing to always keep in mind is that, although you will get a lot of autonomy, you will also have more responsibilities.

You will be responsible for running the facility in addition to supervising and managing other nurses who work under you. You will be responsible for your patients and the community around your practice.

Running your own practice, especially a busy one, can also increase the risk of stress and burnout, especially if you do not have enough people assisting you. Some people excel in such conditions as everyone is different, so if you are a natural leader and do not mind the stress and pressure, this is a great role for you.

The higher pay might be worth it, but that is something you have to decide for yourself.


Being a registered nurse is very different from being a nurse practitioner, although there are numerous areas of overlap. You might be comfortable working your way in a hospital or clinical setting or be a leader who wants more autonomy and responsibility. Regardless, both of these are great options and they both give you lots of career opportunities, paths, and specializations to consider.


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