Doctors and Nurse Practitioners: Who Does What

The difference between doctors and nurses lies in the training of each. Doctors graduate from college, then spend four years in medical school. After medical school comes residency, a minimum of three years for primary care careers such as family practice and pediatrics. Specialties like surgery and psychiatry take longer, usually at least five years beyond medical school. And subspecialties, neurosurgery for example, take even longer. A doctor spends at least seven and as many as twelve years after college preparing for his or her career. Once training is completed, the doctor has to pass specialty boards before beginning practice.

Nurse practitioners start out by earning their nursing degree, either a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing, usually requiring four years of college or an Associate’s Degree, generally taking three years. The next step is an advanced degree, either a Master’s or a PhD. Most Nurse Practitioner programs prefer their applicants to have some experience before entering the program. In addition they tend to give preference to the applicants with Bachelor’s Degrees. The Master’s Degree takes 18 to 24 months to complete. At that point the nurse practitioner can take the state boards and start practicing. The PhD. program takes two to three years. Many nurse practitioners spend most of their time in one field, such as gynecology and take tests to become certified as specializing in that field.

Originally nurse practitioners were supposed to be doctor extenders, people who could handle most of the simple problems a doctor sees routinely, but under the supervision of a physician. Over time, more and more states have passed legislation allowing nurse practitioners to function independently, to open their own practices and act as doctors, particularly in primary care fields. They see patients, diagnose, treat, order tests and prescribe medications. They are beginning to make inroads into the specialties and subspecialties now as well, although most subspecialties such as orthopedic and cardiac surgery remain the realm of physicians only.

Nurse practitioners are doing what only doctors did not so long ago in many medical domains. And because their training takes a lot less time, the number of graduates each year exceeds those of the physicians. The nurse practitioners are starting to fill the void left by the doctor shortage.