We’ve established that RNs and NPs are important, distinct roles. But how do they compare from a healthcare professional’s point of view? Michelle Bliss, an oncology/hematology nurse practitioner, says the most apparent differences are tied to NPs increased scope of practice—and the level of responsibility that comes with it.
To illustrate, Bliss offers the example of working with patient lab results.
“RNs are expected to review labs but are not responsible for interpreting those labs, while NPs write the orders for the labs, interpret them and diagnose,” Bliss explains.
Depending on the setting, there may be differences in the total number of patients an NP or RN interacts with in a given day—often RNs will be assigned to a smaller subset of patients in a specific unit while an NP will need to check in with all.
Scope of practice differences can often mean different work expectations and hours, as well. As an RN, Bliss says she typically worked her shift and went home.
“It was rare to be contacted about work or a patient once you left for the day,” Bliss recalls. “As an NP, I sometimes get paged after hours, or have physicians call me at home, chart at home and often work late.”
The trade-off to having additional responsibility and educational requirements as an NP comes through when comparing earning potential. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the 2020 median annual salary for nurse practitioners is $111,680.1 For registered nurses, the BLS reports a 2020 median annual salary of $75,330.1
How are nurse practitioner and registered nursing roles similar?
Clearly both NPs and RNs play a direct, hands-on role in patient care—but how else are they similar?
For one, both RNs and NPs can pursue specialization to focus their work on a specific type of care. For example, RNs may specialize in intensive care, pediatrics or as PACU nurses in post-anesthesia care—and that’s just to name a few. Nurse practitioners also have the choice to pursue specialized focus areas like adult-gerontology, psychiatric-mental health, pediatrics and more. One distinction regarding specializations you should be aware of is that NPs choose their specialty focus prior to or during graduate school, while RNs have the flexibility to change concentrations after obtaining licensure.
Work setting is also an area of significant overlap. Both RNs and NPs work in similar healthcare spaces, such as family clinics, hospitals and specialty settings like outpatient surgical centers.
For Liphart Rhoads, the similarities in the roles are rooted in nursing education.
“The similarities come down to initial education and philosophical views of patient, nurse, health and environment,” says Liphart Rhoads. “RNs and NPs tend to have the same holistic view of patients and health, which directs the compassionate care that they provide.”
Bliss also says that her nursing foundation continues to inform her work as a nurse practitioner.
“Nurses are taught to treat the entire person, to attend to physical, spiritual and emotional needs of the patients,” she explains. “My RN experience taught me how to talk to patients and families and made me more empathetic. Patients tend to entrust more personal things to their nurse, like financial and family concerns. This has helped me become more aware of things that can impact their care.”
Can registered nurses become nurse practitioners?
The good news for anyone torn between these roles is that making the transition from RN to NP is relatively straightforward. Specific eligibility requirements will vary from program to program, but most NP programs will at a minimum require candidates to have completed a Bachelor of Science in Nursing program and obtain RN licensure in order to enroll.
While it’s a straightforward path to educational advancement for most registered nurses, the effort and investment required of nurse practitioner students should not be taken lightly. Becoming a nurse practitioner is a significant step up in the decision-making and care hierarchy, and with that comes extensive training and education.