Nurse Practitioner (NP) vs Registered Nurse (RN)

There’s nothing small about nursing. By the numbers, in 2021, there were 3.1 million registered nurses (RNs) in the United States, and the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) shows nurses outnumber physicians by four to one. The demand for registered nurses and nurse practitioners is fueled by increased patient loads brought on by expanded health insurance, a nursing retirement surge, and the healthcare needs of the large Baby Boomer population. The Covid-19 pandemic has increased the pressure on nurse staffing shortages and has prevented providers from providing patients with timely access to care. 

To address these patient-provider log jams, nurse advocacy organizations have been pushing for full practice authority for nurse practitioners (NPs). To support these efforts, many accredited nursing degree and certificate programs offer career pathways for registered nurses (RNs) and nurse practitioners (NPs). This guide outlines the similarities and differences between these nurse practitioners (NPs) and registered nurses (RNs). 

Nurse Practitioners (NPs) are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), registered nurses (RNs) who have earned a master of science in nursing (MSN), post-master’s certificate, or doctor of nursing practice (DNP) with an NP specialization, and completed additional requirements for professional licensure. NPs see patients in clinical environments or may conduct research, in laboratories, public health, or teaching hospitals. 

Nurse practitioners treat primary and specialized care patients. NPs lead nursing teams in hospitals or outpatient clinics. Depending on their state, they can work with full, partial, or reduced practice authority. In states with reduced and partial practice authority, NPs must practice under the supervision of a physician. 

A slim majority of states grant NPs full practice authority, meaning they can diagnose and treat patients without the supervision of a physician. NPs can prescribe medications. As with physicians, NPs focus on preventative health, educating patients about science-proven practices to promote health and longevity.  

Registered Nurses (RNs) are licensed healthcare professionals who coordinate, manage, and provide clinical and at-home care to patients. Widely considered the backbone of the U.S. healthcare system, RNs prepare patients for clinical exams, record medical histories, and use medical equipment to diagnose and treat patients under the supervision of physicians and NPs. 

Depending on state requirements, RNs have either an associate degree of nursing (ADN) or a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN). To become a licensed RN, candidates must take and pass the NCLEX-RN exam after graduating from an accredited two- or four-year undergraduate nursing program.

As is the case with NPs, RNs can choose to work in primary care or specialize by earning a certificate in cardiovascular, oncology, pediatric, or critical care nursing. RNs are well-positioned to pursue APRN careers by enrolling in a graduate or doctoral program to become nurse practitioners.   

Regardless of their titles, nurses are consistently ranked as the most-trusted profession in the United States, ranking first for 20 consecutive years on Gallup’s annual ranking of professions with high honesty and ethics.  

In short, all NPs are RNs, but not all RNs are NPs. Read on for a side-by-side comparison of nurse practitioners (NPs) and registered nurses (RNs).

Side-by-Side Comparison of Nurse Practitioners (NPs) and Registered Nurses (RNs)

Unless otherwise indicated, all occupational data for nurse practitioners and registered nurses is sourced from the BLS.

Nurse Practitioners (NP)Registered Nurses (RN)
DefinitionLicensed healthcare professionals who provide primary and specialty patient care, with and without physician supervision. Licensed healthcare professionals who work directly with patients under the supervision of physicians. 
Occupational Demand45 percent (much faster than average) from 2020-2030 (BLS May 2021) 9 percent (as fast as average) from 2020-2030 (BLS May 2021)
Number Employed271,900 (BLS May 2021)3.1 million (BLS May 2021)

Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)

Post-Master’s NP Certificate

Doctorate of Nursing Practice (DNP)

Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN)

Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN)

Accelerated ADN to BSN

Degree Programs

Maryville University– Online MSN, DNP, and Post-Master’s Certificate programs

Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) – Online MSN-FNP program

Drexel University-Online RN to BSN program

Florida International University (FIU) – Online RN to BSN program

Work Environments
  • Physicians offices 47 percent
  • Hospitals: 26 percent
  • Outpatient care centers: 8 percent
  • Educational services: 4 percent
  • Offices of health practitioners: 3 percent
  • Hospitals: 61 percent
  • Ambulatory services: 18 percent
  • Residential care facilities: 6 percent
  • Government: 5 percent
  • Educational services: 3 percent
Typical ResponsibilitiesCare for patients, with or without physician supervision (depending on state-level scope of practice laws); provide primary or specialized healthcare; order tests; prescribe medication; lead teams of nurses; teach nursing education; and conduct research.Coordinate general or specialized patient care with physicians; educate patients and the public on health issues; and give medical advice and emotional support to patients and their families. 
Major Specializations
  • Adult-Gerontology NPs, Primary or Acute Care
  • Pediatric NPs, Primary or Acute Care
  • Family NPs
  • Neonatal NPs
  • Women’s Health and Gender-Related NPs
  • Psychiatric-Mental Health NPs
  • Addiction Nurse
  • Cardiovascular Nurse
  • Critical Care Nurse
  • Genetics Nurse
  • Neonatal Nurse
  • Nephrology Nurse
  • Public Health Nurse

NCLEX-RN Exam (required)

State-specific requirements and population-focused certification exam (e.g., adult-gerontology, primary care)

NCLEX-RN Exam (required)

State-specific requirements

Sample Certification Entities

American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)

  • Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner (AGACNP)
  • Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner (AGPCNP)
  • Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP)
  • Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP)

American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board (AANPCB)

  • Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP)
  • Adult-Gerontology Primary Care (A-GNP)
  • Emergency Nurse Practitioner (ENP)
American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)
  • Ambulatory Care Nursing (AMB)
  • Cardiovascular Nursing (CV)
  • Nursing Case Management (CMGT)
  • Pain Management (PMGT)
  • Pediatric Nursing Certification (PED)
  • Psychiatric-Mental Health (PMH)

American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN)

  • Acute/Critical Care Nursing (CCRN)
  • CCRN Pediatric
  • CCRN Neonatal
  • Progressive Care Nursing (Adult)
  • TeleICU Acute/Critical Care
Average Salary$123,780 per year (BLS May 2021)$77,600 per year (BLS May 2021)
Scope of Practice 

From the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP):

Full practice authority: Without physician supervision, NPs can evaluate, order tests, diagnose, prescribe, and manage patient treatments (27 states)

Reduced practice authority: At least one element of practice requires NPs to collaborate with a physician (15 states and territories)

Restricted practice authority: NPs must be supervised by a physician to provide patient care (11 states)

From the American Nurses Association (ANA):

Who: RNs and APRNs

What: Protection, promotion, and optimization of health; prevention of illness; facilitation of healing; alleviation of suffering; advocacy for populations

Where: Wherever there is a patient in need of care

When: Whenever there is a need for nursing knowledge, compassion, and expertise

Why: To achieve positive patient outcomes


American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)

American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP)

American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC)

American Nurse Association (ANA)

The Bottom Line

NPs are RNs with a graduate or doctoral degree. They are classified as advanced nurse practitioners (APRNs) and provide a wide range of patient care, leadership, and teaching and research roles.

Depending on where they practice, NPs have full, reduced, or restricted practice authority. NPs can prescribe medications.

RNs must have a minimum of an associate’s degree (ADN) or a bachelor of science degree (BSN) in nursing.

They practice nursing under the supervision of physicians or APRNs, depending on the state. RNs can work in primary care or specialize in a wide variety of patient care.

Rachel Drummond, MEd

Rachel Drummond, MEd


On, Rachel Drummond has leveraged her extensive background in education and mindfulness to provide valuable insights to nursing professionals since 2020. She explores how mindfulness and movement can be incorporated into the demanding routines of nurses, emphasizing the importance of mental and physical well-being for increased resilience and effectiveness in the challenging field of nursing.

Rachel is a writer, educator, and coach from Oregon. She has a master’s degree in education (MEd) and has over 15 years of experience teaching English, public speaking, and mindfulness to international audiences in the United States, Japan, and Spain. She writes about the mind-body benefits of contemplative movement practices like yoga on her blog, inviting people to prioritize their unique version of well-being and empowering everyone to live healthier and more balanced lives.