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RN vs. NP: What’s the Difference?

Two nurses reviewing tablet

When comparing the roles of nurse practitioner versus registered nurse (RN), there are distinct differences. But one major similarity shines through, according to Carolyn Coleman, MHP, DNP, FNP-BC, PMHNP-BC, president of the Mississippi Association of Nurse Practitioners. 

“As an RN, you’re learning how to notice when things are not right with a patient,” she said. “If a patient’s breathing isn’t correct. You’re able to assess those things. You need to be able to do that assessment. As a nurse practitioner, you may be going a little bit more in depth, but you learn that as an RN. You’re learning why and how as an NP.”

So, what are the differences between the two roles, the education and training involved, and the various paths for RNs versus NPs? 

Let’s explore those questions, and more.

What is a nurse practitioner versus an RN

Every nurse practitioner is an RN. But not every RN is an NP. 

When comparing RNs versus NPs, the biggest difference is that nurse practitioners, depending on their scope of practice in the state, can prescribe and manage medications for multiple patients. 

Other nurse practitioner duties include: 

  • Interpreting blood tests, X-rays, and other diagnostic tests
  • Developing and implementing care plans for patients
  • Diagnosing and treating chronic or acute conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, and other injuries/illnesses
  • Advising patients on their overall health and wellness
  • Educating patients on disease prevention while promoting healthy lifestyle choices
  • Counseling patients and families and directing them to referrals, resources, and other materials
  • Mentoring and leading other nurses

Nurse practitioners are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), a group that includes those who work as certified nurse midwives, clinical nurse specialists, and certified registered nurse anesthetists. 

“The level of responsibility is higher, but your level of flexibility is better as an NP,” Coleman said. 

When comparing RN versus NP roles, a registered nurse has numerous responsibilities in addition to assessing patients. 

During a normal shift, an RN also can: 

  • Collect lab samples and perform diagnostic tests
  • Record current health and medical history of their patients
  • Administer medications, treatments, and other interventions
  • Monitor for side effects and reactions 
  • Collaborate with physicians on treatment plans
  • Operate and monitor medical equipment 
  • Supervise and teach other staff, including licensed practical nurses (LPNs) and certified nursing assistants (CNAs)

An RN often educates patients and families about treatments and preventive care along with advocating for patients’ well-being and overall health. RNs also can serve as mentors by precepting new colleagues or nursing students. 

Specialties galore for both RNs and NPs

RN specialties are as vast as the types of patients. No matter the age or health needs of patients, there’s a specialty in nursing.

From pediatrics and oncology to wound care and hospice, RNs can provide patient care in a variety of ways. 

RNs often work in hospitals, clinics, physician offices, nursing care facilities, and community and home settings.

“Nursing is a wonderful field,” said Coleman, who began her career as a bedside nurse before moving into management as an RN. “There are so many doors that can open up to you as a nurse.”

The same could be said for nurse practitioners, said Coleman. She first became a family nurse practitioner, which Coleman called “the broadest field” that allows NPs to work with a variety of patients. Then her career took a turn. 

“I started getting a lot of psychiatric patients coming into my clinic,” she said. “I didn’t feel comfortable prescribing medications, knowing those medications, or taking care of those patients.” 

So Coleman studied to become a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner to meet the needs of her patients.

Other NP specialties include pediatric, adult-gerontology, neonatal, and women’s health. Some specialties also feature acute care or primary care options. Depending on their specialty, NPs can work in private practice, and nearly every healthcare setting, such as hospitals, clinics, emergency departments, urgent care facilities, nursing homes, schools, and public health departments. 

RN versus NP education and training

The educational path to becoming a registered nurse can take many avenues. 

Students can earn an associate degree in nursing — known as an ADN — or a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN), then pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) to receive an RN license.

Across the country, there are many hospital-based nursing programs that prepare RNs. Some partner with colleges and universities to help future RNs further advance their education. 

For individuals who have a bachelor’s degree in another field and are transitioning into a nursing career, accelerated nursing programs are available. 

While in nursing school, students also receive hands-on training in simulation labs under the supervision of nursing instructors, along with clinical rotations in various hospital settings and specialties over the course of multiple semesters. These rotations take place alongside preceptors who are professional nurses in that specialty. 

Nurse practitioners, on the other hand, must complete a master’s or doctoral program and have advanced clinical training beyond their initial schooling to become an RN.

Because of the additional education and training, NP salaries are higher.

The median salary for nurse practitioners in May 2022 — the most current Bureau of Labor Statistics data available — is $121,610. 

For RNs, the median salary is $81,220, according to the BLS.

Why become an NP? 

Though Coleman admits her path to becoming a nurse practitioner was unique, she encourages other RNs to consider an NP path. 

“If you’re a good RN and you know you take good care of your patients, you have the skills to become a nurse practitioner,” she said.

Coleman knows she made the right choice for her career. “You have to find your niche,” she said. “I found my place. I found this is where I should’ve been the whole time.”

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