Clinical Nurse Specialist vs. Nurse Practitioner: What’s the Difference?

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A family nurse practitioner meets with a mother and her child.

In health care, the quality of patient care is always the top priority. However, hospitals and health care facilities run on finite resources. They only have so many nurses on staff, and medical supplies and equipment can come at a steep cost. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to many hospitals being short-staffed or in short supply of medical resources, like ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE).

Efficiency — specifically, nursing efficiency — is vital to maintaining a high level of care while maximizing hospital resources. Nursing efficiency requires an adequate nurse-to-patient ratio, effective use of hospital resources, and appropriate use of technology, according to the National Library of Medicine. It also means that nurses must work as a cohesive unit, be competent in standard care delivery, and adhere to the Code of Ethics for Nurses. Nurses who waste resources or who lack cohesion with the rest of the nursing unit run the risk of disrupting this efficiency and the effectiveness of patient care.

A clinical nurse specialist (CNS) and a family nurse practitioner (FNP) play an important part in the efficiency of a facility’s nursing strategies. The challenge that some people face when comparing a clinical nurse specialist vs. family nurse practitioner is differentiating between the two. Although they share many similarities, distinct differences in education, duties, and patient demographics make these roles unique.

Core Differences Between Clinical Nurse Specialists and Family Nurse Practitioners

Clinical nurse specialists and family nurse practitioners are both categorized as advanced practice roles that require a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree. They also share some common duties, including assessing, diagnosing, and treating patients and promoting disease prevention.

However, the two positions have some fundamental differences. For example, FNPs are frontline medical workers whose primary responsibility is delivering direct patient care. CNSs, while they also treat patients, often extend their focus into areas such as research and health care management.

The following are examples of responsibilities a CNS may have that an FNP typically doesn’t:

  • Performing health care industry research
  • Serving as industry experts and resources of information to other health care workers
  • Coordinating with other health care professionals to develop strategies to enrich patient care
  • Identifying opportunities for improvement in health care and creating new policies to bring them to fruition

Another key difference when comparing clinical nurse specialists and family nurse practitioners is that a CNS has advanced training and education in a specialized area of nursing. Any of the following areas can define a CNS specialization:

  • Medical setting
  • Patient demographic
  • Disease type or medical subspecialty
  • Type of care required
  • Type of medical problem

Whereas CNSs focus on a specific area of health care delivery, FNPs provide care to patients of all ages; this can extend to building proactive health management strategies across a wide demographic of patients.

Clinical Nurse Specialist vs. Family Nurse Practitioner Salary

The median annual salary of a CNP was approximately $94,500 as of June 2022, according to data compensation website Payscale, with a salary range between $70,000 and $122,000.

FNPs earn a similar salary to CNPs. As of May 2022, Payscale reported FNPs earned a median annual salary of $98,000, with a salary range between $81,000 and $121,000.

It’s important to note the salary figures provided are meant to serve as a baseline. Education, experience, location, and the particular employer can all influence how much a CNS or an FNP is paid.

How a CNS and an FNP Work Together

Hospitals and health care facilities are constantly being optimized and improved to streamline processes, eliminate redundancies, maximize resources, and improve patient care. Although CNSs and FNPs don’t necessarily work side by side, a CNS’s administrative and strategic development work can complement an FNP’s care delivery strategies to provide more effective and efficient patient care.

This synergy is especially important during times of crisis, e.g., at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when the effects of the nationwide nursing shortage presented unique challenges to health care facilities. Instead of simply hiring more nurses, tactics like improving coordination across departments and developing better systems for decision-making became necessary.

FNPs and other nursing staff following a research-based strategy that a CNS has developed can be the foundation for nursing efficiency and promote positive patient outcomes.

Make a Difference in Care Delivery

Hospitals and health care facilities aim to offer patients a high standard of care while deploying staff effectively and maximizing resources. Although many differences exist between clinical nurse specialists and family nurse practitioners, they share the same goal of improving patient outcomes. CNSs strive to achieve this through policy work at the administrative level, while FNPs provide hands-on patient care.

Both CNSs and FNPs require advanced nursing education. Bradley University’s online Master of Science in Nursing – Family Nurse Practitioner program features courses such as Research in Nursing, Evidence-Based Practice, Health Informatics, and Healthcare Policy. The program can provide the ideal educational foundation for those interested in pursuing a career as an FNP.

Take the first step toward a career as an advanced practice nurse with Bradley University.


Recommended Readings

Nursing Theories: An Overview

How Nurse Leaders Create Effective and Fair Nurse Scheduling

How Clinical Decision Support Systems Benefit Nurses



American Association of Nurse Practitioners, Are You Considering a Career as a Family Nurse Practitioner?

Association of American Medical Colleges, “Hospitals Innovate Amid Dire Nursing Shortages”

HealthWorks Collective, 5 Strategies for Improving Healthcare Efficiency

Incredible Health, Guide to Becoming a Nurse Practitioner

Incredible Health, What Is a Clinical Nurse Specialist?

McKinsey & Company, “Nursing in 2021: Retaining the Healthcare Workforce When We Need It Most”

National Association of Clinical Nurse Specialists, What Is a CNS?

Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care, “Nursing Efficiency in Patient Care: A Comparative Study in Perception of Staff Nurse and Hospital Management in a Trust Hospital”

Payscale, Average Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS) Salary

Payscale, Average Family Nurse Practitioner (NP) Salary

Vie Healthcare Consulting, The Role of Nurses in Cost Savings & Efficiency

WebMD, What Is a Clinical Nurse Specialist?