What’s the Difference Between a Nurse and a Doctor?

a nurse and a doctor
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Have you ever wondered just how different a nurse is from a doctor or whether they have exactly the same roles?

Here, you will find the answer to these questions, which will help you determine which career path is best for you.

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What Is the Difference Between a Nurse and a Doctor?

While doctors follow a far lengthier educational track and are able to diagnose and treat patients independently, nurses, who typically follow a two to four-year educational track for initial licensure, cannot provide medical diagnoses and can only treat patients while following doctors’ orders.

Is There Really That Big of a Difference Between Nurses and Doctors?

To the untrained eye, it may seem as if doctors and nurses do have practically the same jobs as well as interchangeable careers.

After all, both provide expert medical care, saving patients’ lives, and helping individuals gain higher levels of health and wellness.

However, there is actually much more to consider than this. If you delve deeper, you’ll find that there are many differences in the following areas:

  • Education
  • Hands-on Training
  • Professional Licensure
  • Scope of Practice
  • Daily Schedules
  • Patient Care
  • Specialization
  • Advancement
  • Salary
  • Personality

Differences in Education and Hands-on Training

You probably already know how much more education doctors must have before beginning their medical practices when compared to nurses.

While nurses may be able to finish up an associate’s degree in under two years and a bachelor’s degree in two to four years depending on the program, doctors often spend years in school.

https://youtu.be/FY-Z6dWGCtU
A video on the steps to becoming a doctor.

Doctors must complete four years of undergraduate work and four years of medical school before being able to complete a hands-on residency in their area of choice.

Depending on the specialty area, residencies can last from two to seven years. Therefore, all doctors spend at least a decade in school before licensure.

A video on the steps to becoming a nurse.

The traditional method for becoming an RN is schooling for four years at a college or university. This is what I did after high school to earn my bachelor’s degree in nursing.

These years encompass both classroom and hands-on training. Upon graduation, individuals can take the NCLEX-RN examination for state licensure.

However, there are plenty of other educational options these days. Some choose to follow a fast-track program to get into the field early and make money quickly.

Differences in Licensure

Doctors and nurses also have different licenses. A nursing license is a broad-spectrum allowance for nurses to practice anywhere in their field.

While there are certainly options for gaining additional certifications, nurses do not have to follow one track in their careers and can easily switch specialty areas in a hospital or clinic without too much bother.

On the other hand, a doctor must pursue a license in one particular specialization, such as cardiology, surgery, family practice or geriatrics.

If a doctor wants to change career paths, he must go back to school for further specialization before being able to take a new licensure examination in his state.

Differences in Scope of Practice

ProfessionScope of Practice
NurseLicensure is broad. Meaning they can work in any specialty. For example, an ICU nurse and GI nurse have the same licensure and school training.
PhysicianLicensure is typically specialized in a specific field. For example, an ICU doctor (intensivist) and a GI doctor (gastroenterologists) went through different training.
Comparison of a nurse’s scope of practice vs a medical doctor’s scope of practice.

Because of educational and licensure restrictions, doctors and nurses have far different scopes of practice. Doctors are generally trained to work as specialists in one particular field.

They keep up with changes in this field and are adept at getting to the root of health problems for one particular body system or surgical area. If the patient has a different type of problem, the doctor will send the patient to a different specialist.

Of course, there are non-specialized general practice and family practice doctors who only complete three years of residency and can provide a wide range of treatments to patients of many ages. However, they’re not able to treat certain acute problems or chronic disease processes.

Nurses cannot generally prescribe medications or treatments although they may be able to follow treatment protocols put into place by doctors.

However, all care provided by nurses to patients is always under the direct or indirect supervision of a doctor. Therefore, while doctors are fully autonomous, nurses can only perform certain activities independently.

Differences in Work Schedules

Nurses usually follow 8 or 12-hour shifts depending on their facilities and their nursing units. At the end of the shift, nurses can clock out and generally leave the rest of their patients’ care to the team of nurses coming into work after them.

While doctors still follow shifts, they’re more frequently on call, are often called in at night or on the weekends to care for their patients and cannot usually feel that they’re turning over complete care of their patients to someone else.

In some instances, doctors feel as if they’re constantly on call.

Side-Note:
I want to mention that while being on call is more common when it comes to physicians, there are nursing specialties that are known for having call.

For example, OR nursing and endoscopy nursing are two nurse specialties that I immediately think of where being on-call is very prevalent.

Differences in Patient Care

Most patients believe that the doctor is in charge of all their care, and they often look only to the doctor for advice.

In my career, there have been plenty of times that I have asked my patients questions during assessments, and they have said everything was fine. However, when the doctor came in, they gave a completely different answer.

This just proves the point that many patients still see nurses as being little more than over-payed helpers. Thankfully, this is simply not true.

Nurses are the faces that patients see all the time. They provide the hands-on care, the empathy, and the loving bedside manner that help patients feel safe and comfortable.

Differences in Specializations and Advancements

As already mentioned, nurses can choose a specialty area if they wish to following licensure and can change anytime they want while doctors must stick with their specialty area unless they wish to go back to school.

Of course, nurses can also go back to school to get a master’s degree or a doctorate degree. However, they still maintain their original state licensure.

Some of the most popular continuing career paths for nurses include the following:

Of course, both careers hold plenty of opportunities for branching out and advancing in the field.

For example, nurses may opt for Critical Care Registered Nurse or Certified Heart Failure Nurse certifications among dozens of other options.

Differences in Salaries

ProfessionAverage Salary
Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN/LVN)$47,480
Registered Nurse (RN)$73,300
Physician (MD/DO)$300,000
Comparison of the average salary of a nurse and a doctor.

Thanks to the much longer educational track that doctors must follow, they receive far higher salaries than nurses do.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, registered nurses in the United States earn an average of $73,300 annually as of 2019. Licensed practical nurses earn an average of $47,480 per year.

On the other hand, the average salary for a doctor in the U.S. is nearly $300,000 per year. Of course, there are even wider variations between salaries in specialty areas in this profession than there are in nursing.

For example, a neurosurgeon can easily make over half a million dollars every year.

Differences in Personalities

Doctors and nurses both have certain personality quirks that make them perfect for the medical profession.

Most have an inherent curiosity that makes them dig deeper into root causes. Both think critically and are generally decisive by nature.

However, nurses often think in more concrete terms than doctors do. After years of working with plenty of nurses myself, I have seen the following personality traits displayed repeatedly.

  • Empathy
  • Amazing communication skills
  • High attention to detail
  • Quick problem-solving skills
  • Open-mindedness
  • Openness to change
  • Teamwork

Doctors often think in more abstract terms as they dig to the bottom of a problem. Some of the most common personality traits I have seen in the doctors I work with include the following:

  • Courage
  • Commitment
  • Strong work ethic
  • Academic excellence
  • Commitment to constant learning

What Are the Historical Differences Between Doctors and Nurses?

While doctors and nurses are certainly different in so many ways in modern days, it is interesting to note that there have always been significant differences.

Even as the scope of practice and responsibilities for both professionals have changed over the years, some things have stayed the same.

In some ways, doctors have always had the same role. They have been in charge of overall patient care and have always had the final say in diagnostics and treatment plans.

Of course, anyone in the field can tell that a doctor’s practice is far more advanced today than it once was and that doctors have far more options for how to treat their patients. Doctors are also held to a higher standard these days and face far more concerning legal issues with liability.

On the other hand, the field of nursing has gone through the most changes. Nurses were once seen as little more than doctors’ helpers. They would sit with patients, provide menial care and hand over the correct instruments.

Today, the nursing field has been revolutionized. There is far more room for advancement, and nurses actually have far more autonomy than they once did.

In my nursing practice, I feel that I am on a fairly level playing field with doctors. While the doctor is still in charge and has the final say, I can come to him/her with observations, follow standard order sets that he approves, handle cutting-edge and life-saving equipment and create a nursing plan of care independently.

Are There Any Similarities?

Medicine and nursing should be seen as allied professions. One cannot exist without the other. Because of this, there are a few similarities between the two that I have noted throughout my career.

1. First, keep in mind that both doctors and nurses are legally liable for the quality of medical care that they provide. When I am charting, I know that I need to make nursing notes complete and thorough to cover my tracks.

Without proper documentation, patients or their family members could make the case that I made a mistake.

The same is true for doctors although on a much larger scale. Because patients often see doctors as controlling their medical care, they’re often apt to sue them first.

2. Second, the work environment for most doctors and nurses is roughly the same. Both doctors and nurses work in clinics, hospitals, surgery centers, long-term care facilities and military or veterans’ facilities among many others.

3. Third, both doctors and nurses are seen as highly trustworthy professionals by the majority of Americans.

Gallup polls routinely place both these medical professionals in the top when it comes to honesty and ethics. However, while nurses routinely come in first, medical doctors come in a bit lower at third place.

Related: Charting Tips for Nurses

Final Thoughts

As you can see, although there are some similarities in the work that doctors and nurses do, there are also major differences in educational background, salary, daily work and more.

Which career path seems like it would be the better fit for you? Comment below with your thoughts.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do nurses get paid more than doctors?

While few nurses may earn more than doctors, in general doctors on average earn more than nurses by a significant margin.

Is a nurse a physician?

A physician is trained in medicine which is the practice of promoting and maintaining health through diagnosing and treating of illnesses. A nurse is trained in nursing practice carries out physician orders and is focused on caring for the whole patient (holistic care).

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