Nurse Practitioner vs. RN: What’s the Difference?

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A family nurse practitioner meets with a mother and baby in her office.The United States’ ongoing nursing shortage will likely continue throughout the decade. The nation’s aging population fuels this issue, as roughly 73 million residents will be 65 and over by 2030, according to the 2020 census.

This number’s effect on nursing is twofold: More older patients may need chronic care, and projections indicate that more than 1 million nurses will retire by 2030. Add into the mix issues such as nurse burnout — which the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated — and the industry will have an urgent need for highly skilled nursing professionals to provide exceptional care to mitigate this gap.

This shortage provides nursing students with a robust job market once they graduate. The roles of nurse practitioner (NP) and registered nurse (RN) may be of particular interest to individuals seeking to enter the nursing field. When considering the paths to becoming a nurse practitioner vs. RN, future nurses should have a thorough understanding of the differences between them before working toward one or the other.

What Is a Registered Nurse?

Registered nurses help coordinate patient care delivery in a health care facility. This includes patient assessment and observation, recording patient histories and symptoms, administering patient medicines and treatments, and arranging care for new and existing patient plans. RNs can also operate medical equipment and assist in the performance and analysis of various diagnostic tests. In some cases, they can work with patients and their families to coordinate strategies to properly manage illnesses or recovery from injury.

Often, these nurses work with physicians and various health care specialists, although some RNs can oversee the work of nursing assistants. They may also work in a specialized field of health care, such as cardiovascular, neonatal or critical care. This can enable registered nurses to further narrow their focus of care, such as hospice care for the elderly or pediatric cancer treatment.

What Is a Nurse Practitioner?

A type of advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), nurse practitioners integrate patient care coordination with the administration of primary and specialty health care. This can include health issue diagnosis, analysis and alteration of patient treatment plans, and prescribing medicines. NPs can also research various aspects of health care delivery, including new medical procedures or evolving policies. The precise scope of their duties also depends on the state of practice.

Nurse practitioners, like RNs, can specialize their care delivery. They can work with physicians and other health care professionals to coordinate care within a specific patient demographic, such as pediatrics, women or older patients. NPs can also work independently, without physician supervision, in certain states. Their autonomy depends on whether the state offers full practice or full prescriptive authority.

Differences Between a Nurse Practitioner and an RN

While nurse practitioners and registered nurses share some duties pertaining to patient care coordination, prospective nurses should know several key differences before deciding on a career path.

Role and Responsibilities

Nurse practitioners have a broader scope of duties than registered nurses. Unlike RNs, NPs may provide primary and specialty patient care instead of assisting in overall patient care delivery — an element that can include altering treatment strategies based on a patient’s condition. Additionally, nurse practitioners can also research new care methodologies, and they may teach staff about new care procedures or policies.

Work Environment

Where an individual may work is another key distinction between nurse practitioners and RNs. Registered nurses commonly work in hospitals or ambulatory settings, such as a doctor’s office or outpatient clinic. Although nurse practitioners can also work in these environments, the scope of their work enables them to pursue roles outside of a clinical setting, such as in a government agency or an educational institution.


One of the biggest differences between nurse practitioners and RNs is their level of education. Registered nurses can practice with only an associate or bachelor’s degree, whereas nurse practitioners must have a minimum of a master’s degree specific to their specialized role, such as family nurse practitioner (FNP) or psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP). In addition, while both NPs and RNs must be licensed to practice, the licenses required for the respective roles are different.

Salary and Career Outlook

Finally, the two roles differ in pay and projected job growth. The 2019 median annual salary for registered nurses, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), was $73,300, while the median annual salary for nurse practitioners was $115,800.

Furthermore, the BLS projects a 52% increase in the employment of nurse practitioners between 2019 and 2029, as compared with a 7% projected job growth for registered nurses. This growth partially stems from the high volume of nurse retirements anticipated during this time. Another key factor is the increased need to deliver patient care in rural and underserved areas without a sufficient physician presence. This need connects to a concurrent push to encourage more states to enable full practice and full prescriptive authority to nurse practitioners to further close the care gap left by a physician shortage.

Pursue a Career as a Nurse Practitioner

A nurse practitioner career can provide a host of benefits, including significant autonomy, environmental flexibility, lucrative pay and a robust job outlook. More importantly, it enables individuals interested in an advanced role in health care to make a significant impact on care delivery — one that may ultimately help improve patient outcomes.

The University of North Dakota’s online Master of Science in Nursing program can help you sharpen your skills and take your knowledge to a higher level, ultimately allowing you to deliver optimal care that improves patient outcomes. Learn more about the University of North Dakota and explore how its Family Nursing Practitioner (FNP) and Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP) concentrations can help you prepare to make a difference in a crucial industry.


Recommended Readings

AGNP vs FNP: Comparing Two Essential Nursing Roles

Exploring the Types of Nursing Specialties and Salaries of Nurse Practitioners

What Is the Role of a Family Nurse Practitioner?


American Association of Colleges of Nursing, Nursing Shortage

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, State Practice Environment

American Nurses Association, What Is Nursing?

The Conversation, “Amid a Ranging Pandemic, the US Faces a Nursing Shortage. Can We Close the Gap?

Health Affairs, “How Should We Prepare for the Wave of Retiring Baby Boomer Nurses?”

Medical Care, “Will the RN Workforce Weather the Retirement of the Baby Boomers?”

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

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered Nurses

U.S. Census Bureau, “By 2030, All Baby Boomers Will Be Age 65 or Older