Nurse Practitioner vs. Registered Nurse: The Four Key Differences

Each blog post is dated and contains accurate information as of that date. Certain information may have changed since the blog post publication date. If you would like to confirm the current accuracy of blog information, please visit our ABSN and BSN transfer track overview page or contact admissions at 844.347.2108.

Nurse practitioner versus registered nurse is a common comparison when choosing between healthcare careers. Each profession follows a separate career path and has differing roles and responsibilities as well as different educational requirements, career outlooks, and salary trends.

nurses in a patient room

In today’s constantly evolving healthcare industry, nurses are engaging in more prominent roles than ever to meet the needs of a growing patient population. Nursing requires in-depth education and training, which lays the foundation for a career devoted to caring for others.

Registered nurses (RNs) and nurse practitioners (NPs) are two distinct roles, each with its own education requirements, specialization opportunities, and pathways to licensure. Understanding these differences is important for aspiring nurses who are navigating their career options.

What are the distinct responsibilities of and key differences between an NP and an RN? What does an NP do, and what does an RN do?

In this blog, we explore four key elements of each career path and share how Mercer University’s Second Degree Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) track might be the right path for you to enter the nursing field.

Registered Nurse Role and Responsibilities

What do RNs do? RNs are the backbone of day-to-day patient care in various healthcare settings. Their clinical responsibilities primarily focus on delivering direct patient care and ensuring the safe and effective implementation of healthcare plans. RNs play a vital role in monitoring patients’ health, administering medications, providing treatment, and offering emotional support to patients and their families.

They are also responsible for educating patients about their health conditions and treatments as well as advocating for patients’ needs within the healthcare system. While RNs operate under the direction of physicians and NPs, they also lead communication between separate patient care team members. Additionally, as the professionals who have the most face-to-face interactions with patients, they are often the first to note changes in patients’ symptoms or demeanors.

nurse in gray scrubs smiling at camera

Nurse Practitioner Role and Responsibilities

What is an NP? An NP manages a broader range of clinical responsibilities than an RN, including patient care and elements of diagnosis, treatment planning, and in many cases, the provision of primary healthcare services. They assess patients to diagnose health issues, order and interpret diagnostic tests, and manage acute and chronic conditions.

Many NPs function as primary care providers, prescribing medications (in many states) and managing patients’ overall health. They can also specialize in practice areas such as pediatrics, family medicine, women’s health, and psychiatry. Depending on state laws, NPs may practice independently. This autonomy enables NPs to serve as primary healthcare providers, making them especially in-demand in underserved areas.

Military nurse giving patient a vaccine shot

If you want to explore a nursing career but not one as a generalist RN or an NP, review some of the most popular alternative nursing career paths.

Four Key Differences Between Nurse Practitioners and Registered Nurses

NPs and RNs both exist within the same field, but there are key differences between these career paths. Learn more about the separate education paths for each and the variations in role responsibilities, career outlooks, and earning potentials below.

1. Educational Length and Requirements

RNs and NPs represent two distinct roles, each with its own education requirements, specialization opportunities, and pathways to licensure.

The academic journey for RNs begins with completing either an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). While both lead to eligibility for the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN), pursuing an ADN or a BSN can influence future opportunities. Employers increasingly prefer the BSN as it is essential for multiple specific roles.

Nurse Practitioners (NPs) require a graduate degree, either a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). Both programs offer advanced training in clinical practice, diagnosis, and treatment, preparing NPs for specialized roles within the healthcare field. NPs must also earn certification in their specialty from an NP certification board before earning their license. Be sure to review your state’s licensure requirements, as they vary by state.

If you desire to launch a nursing career, Mercer University’s ABSN track offers a curriculum that empowers students to earn a BSN in as few as 12 months. This can prepare you to become a practicing RN after achieving a passing score on the NCLEX-RN or it can provide a foundation for the requirements to become an NP.

2. Clinical Responsibilities

The distinction in clinical responsibilities between RNs and NPs is not a matter of hierarchy but a reflection of the specialized training and education each role requires. While RNs focus on executing detailed care plans and providing essential patient support, NPs are equipped to make higher-level clinical decisions, including the diagnosis of conditions and prescription of treatments.

Mercer nursing student standing holding stethoscope

This complementary relationship allows for a more dynamic and responsive healthcare environment where patient care is seamlessly managed, from basic needs to complex health management. Through these two roles, the healthcare industry ensures every patient receives care that is informed by the expertise of nurses at every level. RNs and NPs form a vital duo in healthcare settings as they ensure that patients receive holistic, timely, and effective care that is tailored to their unique needs.

3. Career Outlook

The need for RNs and NPs is projected to increase because of a growing elderly population who need care and the shortage of physicians necessary to deliver primary care. More NPs and nurses are needed to meet this rising need, and the demand for both career paths is projected to continue growing.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics anticipates a substantial increase in registered nurse (RN) positions by 2032. The number of available jobs is projected to grow by 177,400, representing a 6% rise. There is also a projection of 123,600 new NP positions in the same timeframe. Because there are fewer number of practicing NPs, this represents a 38% increase in the field.

Wondering what a nursing career might be like? See some of the top benefits of a nursing career.

mercer nurse looking away while sitting with clipboard

4. Salary

The salaries for RNs and NPs vary based on factors such as city and state, level of education, practice area, and years of experience. Generally, RNs who hold a BSN may earn higher salaries than those who hold an ADN due to the increasing demand for highly educated nurses in complex healthcare environments.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, RNs earn an annual median wage of $81,220. Wages depend on the specific institution, practice area, and geographic location, and the top 25% of nurses earn a median wage of $101,100 annually. NPs earn a median salary of $121,610, and the top 25% of NPs earn an average salary of $135,470 annually.

Mercer nursing student portrait

Does a Nursing Career Sound Right for You?

Ready to take the next step toward your future nursing career as an RN or NP? If you have a previous non-nursing bachelor’s degree, Mercer University’s ABSN track could be your next step toward an exciting and enriching new career.

Contact us today to connect with an enrollment counselor and begin the conversation.