Key differences between family nurse practitioners and doctors


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Many people assume that a doctor is their only option for primary healthcare. However, a family nurse practitioner (FNP) can provide many of the same services as a doctor.

If you’re considering a healthcare career, you may wonder what the difference is between a family nurse practitioner and a doctor. While both roles provide essential medical care and services, several key differences set them apart.

Therefore, it is crucial to understand the distinctions between FNPs and doctors to make informed decisions about your healthcare. Let’s look at some notable differences between family nurse practitioners and doctors to help you better understand each role and the unique skills they bring to healthcare. 

Understanding the role of a family nurse practitioner

A family nurse practitioner (FNP) is an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) trained to provide primary and specialty healthcare to individuals and families of all ages.

FNPs can diagnose and treat various health conditions and injuries and manage chronic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and asthma. They can also perform physical exams, order and interpret diagnostic tests, prescribe medications, and provide preventive care services.

Amid the primary care physician shortage, FNPs can fill burgeoning health professional roles and serve as the primary healthcare provider for patients. Rockhurst University offers a one-of-a-kind education that blends classroom learning with clinical experience, culminating in a Family Nurse Practitioner Certification and RN license.

Their program prepares students to provide safe and effective primary healthcare to individuals of all ages, including healthy adults, children, adolescents, older adults, and families.

What does a family nurse practitioner do?

A family nurse practitioner can play an essential role in any healthcare setting. They are often found in physician offices, where they may coordinate patient medical care. To understand their position better, the following examples show how FNPs could help patients receive the best care possible.

Diagnose and treat common health conditions.

One of the roles of a family nurse practitioner is to diagnose and treat common health conditions. FNPs are trained to diagnose and treat various health conditions, including acute illnesses and injuries and chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and asthma.

They use various diagnostic techniques, such as taking medical histories, performing physical exams, and ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests to identify and manage health conditions. 

Perform physical exams

Another role of a family nurse practitioner is to perform physical exams. During a physical exam, an FNP will assess a patient’s overall health and check for any signs of health problems.

This may include taking vital signs, such as blood pressure and heart rate, and listening to the heart and lungs with a stethoscope. The FNP may also check the eyes, ears, nose, and throat and perform other exams as needed.

Physical exams are essential to preventive care, as they can help identify potential health problems early on when they are most treatable.

Order and interpret diagnostic tests.

FNPs receive training on various diagnostic tests to help diagnose and manage health conditions. These tests may include laboratory tests, such as blood and urine tests, and imaging studies, such as X-rays, CT scans, and MRI scans.

These professionals can order these tests and interpret the results to help manage health complications. They may also work with other healthcare professionals, such as radiologists, to solve test results and develop treatment plans. 

Prescribe medications

FNPs have the authorization to prescribe various medications to treat multiple health conditions. They can prescribe medications to help manage chronic conditions, such as diabetes and hypertension, and treat acute illnesses and injuries.

These nurse practitioners can also monitor patients’ medication responses and adjust treatment plans. In some states, FNPs may need to work under the supervision of a physician or have a collaborative agreement with a physician to prescribe medications. 

Provide preventive care services.

Preventive care is essential in maintaining overall health and well-being, and FNPs can play a vital role in this process. They can provide preventive care services such as immunizations, cancer screenings, and health risk assessments to help patients stay healthy and prevent illness. FNPs can also educate patients about healthy lifestyle habits like diet and regular exercise.

Educate patients and families.

One of the roles of a family nurse practitioner is to educate patients and families about health conditions and how to manage them. FNPs can inform patients and families about their health conditions, including how to take medications, follow a healthy lifestyle, and prevent illness.

They can also provide education on other health topics, such as healthy eating, managing stress, and preventing infection. By educating patients and families, FNPs can help empower them to take an active role in their healthcare and improve their overall health and well-being.

Coordinate care

FNPs often work as part of a healthcare team and may coordinate care with other healthcare professionals, such as primary care physicians and specialists.

They may also coordinate care with non-medical professionals, such as social workers and home health aides, to ensure that patients receive the complete care and support they need. By coordinating care, FNPs can help ensure patients receive the most appropriate and effective care. 

What is a doctor?

A doctor is a physician licensed to practice medicine in the United States. They diagnose and treat serious illnesses that impact the whole body, like cancer, diabetes, or heart disease. They know how to prescribe medications, use diagnostic equipment, and perform minor surgeries.

Although most patients don’t require advanced medical skills, MDs can provide all of their patients with the best care possible. The medical field is rapidly changing, and doctors can keep up with the latest advancements.

They can access information about new treatments or medications within minutes, even if their patients can’t access them online. This allows them to offer the most effective care possible for their patients.

What does a doctor do?

Doctors play a vital role in maintaining the health and well-being of individuals, families, and communities. Doctors can work in various settings, including hospitals, clinics, private practices, and other healthcare facilities.

There are many different types of doctors, including primary care doctors (such as family physicians or general practitioners) and specialists (such as cardiologists, dermatologists, or neurologists).

Primary care doctors are often the first point of contact for patients seeking medical attention and may be responsible for coordinating care with other specialists as needed. Specialists are doctors who have completed additional training in a specific area of medicine and typically focus on diagnosing and treating particular conditions or diseases.

The specific duties of a doctor may vary depending on their specialty and the setting in which they work. In general, a doctor’s responsibilities may include the following:

· Examining patients and taking a medical history to determine the nature of their illness or injury.

· Performing diagnostic tests, such as blood tests or X-rays, to help diagnose conditions.

· Prescribing medications or other treatments to help manage or cure diseases or injuries.

· Refer patients to specialists or other healthcare professionals as needed.

· Providing preventive care, such as recommending immunizations or performing routine check-ups.

· Educating patients about how to manage their health and prevent future health problems.

· Keeping up to date with medical advances and staying aware of the most current best practices in patient care.

· Collaborating with a healthcare team to coordinate patient care.

· Providing treatment recommendations to patients based on their diagnosis. 

Key differences between family nurse practitioners and doctors

Both family nurse practitioners and doctors provide primary care for patients. But there are fundamental differences between them, such as the degree of responsibility, geographic limitations to work hours, and education requirements. The following points outline nine of the most critical distinctions between these caregivers: 

Education and training

Family nurse practitioners (FNPs) are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) with specialized education and training in primary care. They have a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree and have the required training to diagnose and treat various health conditions.

On the other hand, physicians hold a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree and typically have more extensive training in specialized areas of medicine. Physicians obtain these degrees after completing a four-year undergraduate degree and a four-year medical school program.

After medical school, physicians must complete a residency program, which typically lasts three to seven years and provides additional training in a specific area of medicine. 

Scope of practice

The scope of practice for family nurse practitioners (FNPs) varies by state and may be more limited than that of physicians. FNPs have a broad range of training and can diagnose and treat patients, order and interpret diagnostic tests, and prescribe medications.

They provide primary care to patients of all ages, including preventive care and management of chronic conditions. On the other hand, doctors are regulated by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) and have a much more limited scope of practice regarding qualifications.

Patient population

Family nurse practitioners (FNPs) and physicians may see similar patient populations. Still, FNPs could be more likely to focus on primary and preventive care, while physicians may have a more specialized focus.

FNPs aims to provide primary care to patients, manage chronic conditions, and treat acute illnesses. They may see a wide range of patients, from infants to older adults, and could specialize in pediatrics, women’s health, or gerontology.

On the other hand, physicians may have a more specialized focus, depending on their area of expertise. For example, a cardiologist will primarily have patients with heart conditions, while a pediatrician will see children and adolescents.

Some physicians may also practice in primary care but could be more likely to refer patients to specialists for specific conditions. 

Emphasis on prevention and wellness

Family nurse practitioners (FNPs) often emphasize prevention and wellness and may spend more time discussing lifestyle changes and preventive care measures with patients. These include immunizations, screenings, and counseling on healthy behaviors such as exercise and diet.

FNPs take a holistic approach to patient care and may consider various factors impacting health, including social and environmental circumstances. This approach can allow them to provide more personalized care and help patients make lasting lifestyle changes to improve their health.

Physicians may also discuss prevention and wellness with their patients, but their focus could be more on diagnosing and treating specific health conditions. They may refer patients to other health care providers, such as nutritionists or exercise specialists, for more in-depth counseling on preventive care measures. 

Prescribing authority

Family nurse practitioners (FNPs) can prescribe medications in most states, but their prescribing authority may be more limited than that of physicians. FNPs can prescribe many medications, including prescription drugs, controlled substances, and some non-prescription medicines.

However, the specific medications that an FNP can prescribe depend on their level of training, the state in which they are licensed, and their area of specialization. Some FNPs could have additional training in prescribing certain medications, such as controlled substances, or may need additional coursework or training to obtain prescribing privileges.

FNPs must follow the same standards for prescribing medications as physicians, including considering the appropriateness of the prescription, potential drug interactions, and overall health. They also need to maintain up-to-date knowledge of pharmacology and prescribing practices.

Licensure and certification

Family nurse practitioners (FNPs) are licensed advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) who have completed a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree program and passed a national certification exam.

To become licensed, FNPs must meet the state’s requirements in which they wish to practice. This typically includes completing an accredited nursing program and passing the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN).

Certification exams are designed to test the knowledge and skills of FNPs in their area of practice and may be required for licensure in some states. On the other hand, physicians are licensed by the state medical board in which they wish to practice.

Physicians must pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) or the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination (COMLEX). They typically take these exams after medical school, which are required for state licensure.

 Work schedule

Both family nurse practitioners (FNPs) and physicians may work various schedules, including full-time, part-time, or per diem. The specific work schedule for an FNP or physician may depend on several factors, including their place of employment, the type of practice they work in, and their experience level.

FNPs and physicians who work in hospitals or other 24-hour care facilities may need to work night shifts, weekends, and holidays. They may also have to be on call to care for emergency patients.

FNPs and physicians who work in private practices or clinics may have more regular work schedules, typically working weekdays during business hours. However, they could still need to be on call to care for patients after hours or on weekends.

It’s worth noting that FNPs and physicians may work long hours, particularly those just starting their careers. As they gain experience, more flexibility in their work schedules is possible. 


The level of autonomy for family nurse practitioners (FNPs) may vary depending on the state in which they are licensed and the specific practice setting in which they work. FNPs have a high level of autonomy in their practice and can diagnose and treat patients, order and interpret diagnostic tests, and prescribe medications.

However, some states may have more restrictive laws regarding the scope of practice for FNPs, which may limit their autonomy in certain areas. For example, some states may require FNPs to have a collaborative agreement with a physician or to work under the supervision of a physician.

On the other hand, physicians generally have a high level of autonomy in their practice. They can diagnose and treat patients, order and interpret diagnostic tests, and prescribe medications without the need for supervision or collaboration with other healthcare providers.

Role in patient care accessibility

Both family nurse practitioners (FNPs) and physicians are essential in improving patient care accessibility. FNPs may be more accessible to patients than physicians, as they could be more available for appointments and more likely to see patients promptly.

FNPs may also be more accessible to underserved populations and work in primary care settings, such as clinics and community health centers, often in underserved areas.

This can improve access to care for patients who may have difficulty traveling long distances to see a physician. Additionally, FNPs can provide more personalized patient care, as they may have more time to spend with each patient and can take a holistic approach.

Final thoughts

Family nurse practitioners (FNPs) and physicians play essential roles in the healthcare team and play vital parts in providing quality care to patients. They are committed to improving the health and well-being of their patients.

While they have many similarities, there are also several key differences between the two professions, including their education and training, the scope of practice, and the emphasis on prevention and wellness. Considering these differences is essential when deciding which career path is right for you.

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Karla L. Branan
I am a doctor. I’m not the biggest fan of doctors, but I love to blog. I am a strong advocate for living a healthy lifestyle. I also believe in natural remedies and holistic care. I hope my blog helps people live healthier lives.