Nursing is a broad and varied career field, and sometimes, the terminology used can be confusing to people new to the field. With many potential career paths and specialties, some nursing classifications, like registered nurse (RN) and nurse practitioner (NP), may sound the same or similar, and it can be difficult to know what the difference is at first glance.
While both RNs and NPs work closely with patients to provide quality care, RNs and NPs require different levels of education. To be an RN, you need to complete a nursing program, usually at an associate’s degree level of education. An NP is an RN who has completed an advanced degree program, either a master’s of science in nursing (MSN) or doctor of nursing (DNP).
Because of this educational difference, there are several major differences between RNs and NPs. If you’re considering a nursing career and need help distinguishing between these two important roles, here are the basic differences between RNs and NPs.
What is a Registered Nurse?
The primary role of an RN is to coordinate and provide patient care. RNs also educate patients, families, and the public about health conditions and concerns. Usually when people think of RNs, they think of the nurses working in hospitals. But RNs may also work in physician’s offices, home health care, skilled nursing facilities, outpatient clinics, blood donor centers, or schools.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average RN salary was $73,300 ($35.24 per hour) in 2019, but pay varies by state and specialty. RN employment is also projected to grow 12% from 2018 to 2028, which is much faster than the average rate of growth for other jobs.
Responsibilities of RNs
An RN’s responsibilities vary depending on what type of facility and with which patient demographic they work with. However, you’ll find many base duties shared across most specialties. The key responsibilities of RNs include the following, but depending on where they work, their job duties may vary:
- Charting medical histories and symptoms
- Performing physical examinations and observations
- Assessing patients’ conditions
- Administering medicine and treatment
- Contributing to and/or establishing plans for patient care
- Consulting and collaborating with physicians and other healthcare professionals
- Operating and monitoring medical equipment
- Assisting with diagnostic tests and analyzing their results
- Teaching patients and families how to manage illnesses or injuries
- Explaining to patients and families what to do at home after treatment
- Providing health education and counseling to patients, families, and the public
- Administering medications and monitoring potential symptoms
RN Minimum Qualifications
At minimum, RNs must have an associate degree before they can take the final national licensing exam that will grant them a license to practice. However, an increasing number of employers are requiring candidates to have their bachelor’s of science in nursing (BSN. Here are the steps to become an RN:
- Complete an accredited RN program. An associate degree program can typically be completed in two years. Usually after the first year, eligible students can take the licensing exam to become a licensed vocational nurse, also known as a licensed practical nurse. When choosing a program, make sure it is nationally accredited and gives you the opportunity to apply for a BSN program in case you want to pursue one.
- Pass the NCLEX-RN. All prospective RNs must register for (and pass) the national licensing exam before starting they can get their RN license and start working as an RN. This test is known as the NCLEX-RN and is standard for every state.
- Obtain the proper state licensure. RNs in the United States, its territories, or the District of Columbia must obtain a state license to practice in the state where they want to work. Requirements will vary by state, but many states are part of an Interstate Compact, which means you can work as an RN in any of the participating states so long as you get your license in one of those states and keep it active.
- Find an RN position. Once you finish steps one through three, prospective nurses can begin looking for open RN positions. Some may know what specialty they want to start working in, and others may want to try different jobs to find the best fit.
- Pursue additional training or education. To remain in good standing, RNs must complete a certain number of continuing education units (requirements vary by state). RNs may also choose to complete additional certifications and degree programs to specialize or expand their career opportunities.
What Is a Nurse Practitioner?
According to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP), a nurse practitioner is a type of advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). An APRN is a nurse who has graduated with an advanced degree, like a master’s of science in nursing or a doctor of nursing practice. Unlike RNs, APRNs can diagnose illnesses and prescribe medications or diagnostic tests.
An NP is an APRN who has specialized in a specific patient demographic. This might be acute care for adults, or it could be something more specific, like pediatrics. In many medical clinics, you may see an NP instead of a medical doctor. NPs choose specialties when they enter their advanced degree programs, usually based on what experience they have working as an RN. After they get their degree, NPs may work as researchers, consultants, or as leadership in healthcare facilities.
The BLS reports the median pay for NPs in 2019 was $115,800 per year or $55.67 per hour. The overall employment of NPs and other APRNs is projected to grow 26% by 2028.
Responsibilities of NPs
NPs have much more autonomy with how they treat patients compared to RNs. These advanced practice nurses are also much more specialized, and have gone through additional schooling to focus on their chosen specialty.
But different state laws determine the full scope at which NPs can practice, as some states require them to practice under a medical doctor’s license. With that in mind, some of the general responsibilities of NPs are similar to some RN duties but also typically include:
- Diagnosing medical conditions
- Ordering diagnostic tests or consultations
- Interpreting test results
- Arranging referrals to specialists as necessary
- Developing and implementing plans of care, including prescribing medication or medically-necessary equipment
- Coordinating with other health professionals to provide patient care
- Evaluating patient progress and adjusting the plan of care as appropriate
- Providing health and wellness education to patients, families, and the community
NP Minimum Qualifications
In order to become an NP, a nurse must first become an RN and complete a BSN program. After that, the nurse needs to finish an NP program at a master’s, post-master’s, or doctorate-level degree before getting certification. Here are the steps to become an NP:
- Complete an accredited BSN program. While RNs can practice with an associate degree, prospective NPs must complete a master’s, post-master’s, or doctoral degree, and you need a bachelor’s degree for that. There are many RN-to-BSN programs available at colleges, universities, or technical schools that take anywhere from two to four semesters. Some schools offer online-only options for those students who are working and don’t have time for in-person classes.
- Fulfill all RN licensure requirements. Before pursuing NP credentials, an interested nurse first needs to get their RN license. This includes passing the NCLEX-RN and applying through your state’s licensing board.
- Pursue specializations and certifications while working as an RN. While working as an RN, nurses should use this time to work in specializations and certifications in areas of interest, so they can know what specialization they want to study in an MSN or DNP program.
- Earn an MSN or DNP degree. A master’s degree is the minimum requirement to become an NP. However, obtaining a doctorate can increase career opportunities and make an applicant more competitive. Both MSN and DNP degrees offer specialized programs and clinical training. Not all schools offer all specializations, so you will need to look around at different programs to find the specialization you want. Most MSN programs can take as few as four or five semesters to complete.
- Gain certification from a specialty nursing board. After finishing an advanced degree program, nurses are eligible to get a national NP certification in their area of expertise. These certifications typically require evidence of meeting clinical and academic requirements, as well as a standardized examination.
- Obtain and maintain NP state licensure. While exact requirements vary by state, candidates must present proof of an advanced nursing degree and national nursing certification in their area of specialization. Like other licensed health professions, NPs need to also complete continuing education courses to keep their license and certifications active.
- Find work as an NP. Once steps one through six are complete, you are able to apply for work as an NP in your area of expertise. In addition to patient care positions, NPs also qualify for many leadership positions in healthcare facilities.
Whichever nursing career path you choose, know that you will be making a significant difference in the lives of your patients and the community you serve.
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