What Is a Nurse Practitioner?

In various parts of the country, you are more likely to see a nurse practitioner or NP rather than a medical doctor. A nurse practitioner is an advanced practice registered nurse that can perform many of the same services that an MD can. Millions of Americans make more than a billion visits to nurse practitioners each year.

Although nurse practitioners may be legally limited in their authority in some regions, in many cases, they may act as a surrogate for primary care medical doctors. They can perform duties like prescribe medications and admit patients to hospitals, but they may refer you to an MD for services like treating a child younger than five.

However, in one key respect nurse practitioners and medical doctors are identical—they both want you to be healthy. Despite minor differences in the scope of their authority, they are health care providers that are fully committed to your continued wellbeing.

Similarities and Differences between MDs and NPs

Although many patients may prefer either a nurse practitioner or a medical doctor for one reason or another, you should know that the two professions are very similar in many aspects. The growing shortage of physicians in many parts of the U.S., especially rural areas, has helped make nurse practitioners almost interchangeable with MDs.

At an educational level, the two professions have similar academic requirements. Both NPs and MDs must complete a four-year undergraduate degree, but this is followed by a four-year stint in medical school and at least a two-year residency in a desired specialization for medical doctors. Nurse practitioners earn at least a master’s degree but may also acquire a doctor in nursing practice (DNP); they may also obtain certification in a medical specialty.

At an operational level, nurse practitioners are quite similar to primary care physicians, but this can vary based on state nurse practitioner laws. These overlapping responsibilities include

  • Diagnosing and treating health issues
  • Maintaining patient records
  • Ordering, performing, and analyzing lab tests
  • Prescribing medications and treatments
  • Counseling and educating patients

Nurse practitioners may pursue medical specialization in the following areas:

  • Adult-Gerontological Health
  • Family Health
  • Neonatal Health
  • Pediatric/Child Health
  • Psychiatric/Mental Health
  • Women’s Health

Physicians may specialize in areas reserved for this profession including:

  • Anesthesiology
  • Surgery
  • General pediatrics
  • Obstetrics and gynecology
  • Cardiology
  • Neurology
  • Dermatology
  • Pathology
  • Gastroenterology
  • Ophthalmology
  • Radiology

Why You May Prefer a Nurse Practitioner

It may sound counterintuitive to choose a medical professional with less education and training, but many families prefer nurse practitioners because they offer similar medical advice as a physician in many circumstances without some of the problems that can arise with a physician.

For example, one of the leading problems in American health care is the declining number of physicians, especially in sparsely populated areas of the nation. So many doctors are caring for too many patients and that can lead to a variety of issues.

Among the most pressing of these issues is a lack of depth to the patient-doctor relationship. Although many doctors are eager to engage patients, little time, management demands, or professional burnout can impede this.

That is why many people prefer nurse practitioners who tend to listen more attentively to patient issues. One study found that patients felt that only about 50 percent of physicians “always” listened carefully while 80 percent of nurse practitioners did so.

This dovetails with another issue which is physicians are less adept at communicating complex concepts than many nurse practitioners. While physicians may possess more medical knowledge, they can in many instances fail to translate this information into something patients comprehend.

A related issue to doctor scarcity is the long wait times to see one. In many areas of the country, it can take weeks or months to see a physician, especially a specialist. Many patients find the wait times considerably shorter for a nurse practitioner.

Another reason that some patients prefer nurse practitioners is that NPs are more likely to recommend more conservative therapies. Patients that are more comfortable with more traditional therapies rather emerging or experimental treatments may find that nurse practitioners share their sensibilities.

Finally, there is the issue of money. Because NPs take a less aggressive approach to medicine which entails fewer medications, less likelihood of hospital admission and limited reliance on more expensive therapies, many patients on budgets turn to nurse practitioners before physicians.

When to Turn to an MD

Some patients will refuse to be treated by a nurse practitioner in place of a medical doctor out of a misguided belief that they will receive a lower level of care. In many circumstances, this is patently untrue, but there are situations in which a physician is more appropriate.

In general, nurse practitioners serve as well as or even better than primary care physicians. That is because NPs often have similar training to physicians in this medical field. Furthermore, most patients that require a diagnosis and front-line care are suffering from common conditions that are readily recognizable and require standard treatment.

If, however, you are suffering from a rare health condition, you are probably better served by seeing a physician with specialized training in the applicable field. You can, of course, initially visit a nurse practitioner for a diagnostic evaluation, but once it is determined that more specialized care is needed, then you should be referred to a specialist.

Although most treatment options like medications or rehabilitation are available to nurse practitioners, there is one key treatment that is not in their toolkit, and that is surgery. Although nurse practitioners may assist a surgeon in an operation by performing tasks like opening a patient or suturing an incision, and they may perform minor outpatient procedures, generally nurse practitioners are not legally permitted to perform a surgical procedure.

Finally, a nurse practitioner may not treat children younger than age five, and this also applies to pregnant mothers. In those cases, the NP may consult with an MD to care for a child, or they will refer you to a pediatrician or obstetrician.

Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care

M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.  The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship.  Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA, and you should not post any of your private health information.