DNP vs. MD: Key Differences

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Three health care professionals discuss a patient.

Health care is a rapidly growing field, and career opportunities are flourishing amid the industry’s growth. Many factors have led to this point, such as an aging population and reforms contributing to greater spending and more patients seeking treatment. A result of all this expansion is greater demand for skilled professionals trained to tackle the challenges of modern health care.

At the highest levels of practice, students often choose one of two career paths: Doctor of Nursing Practice – Family Nurse Practitioner (DNP-FNP) or Doctor of Medicine (MD). Individuals in these roles undergo extensive learning and training and are thus prepared with high-level skills to not only deliver high-quality care but also potentially influence the field in other ways, such as in research or policymaking.

However, despite their similarities, these positions are different in many respects. What separates a DNP-FNP and an MD is evident in the day-to-day working life and the philosophical underpinning of each role. Understanding the difference between nurse practitioners and doctors is important for any student pursuing higher education and an advanced degree (for example, DNP vs. MD degrees) necessary for these positions.

What Is a DNP

A DNP is one the highest degrees a nurse can earn. Unlike a PhD in nursing, which focuses on research, a DNP emphasizes nursing practice. A DNP-FNP gives nurse practitioners an opportunity to advance their clinical practice and build their nursing leadership skills. The degree often requires the completion of clinical hours but frequently doesn’t obligate graduates to write a dissertation, a common requirement of nursing PhD programs.

What Is an MD

An MD is a medical degree for physicians. Typically, it takes four years to complete, but then graduates must pass licensing exams and complete internship and residency programs before becoming legally practicing medical doctors. This takes an additional three to six years. The term “MD” also commonly refers to licensed doctors who’ve graduated from an accredited medical school.

What Does an MD Do?

MDs can specialize in fields such as family practice, cardiology, gerontology, acute or chronic care, and surgery. However, before they reach that stage, they must accrue thousands of hours through lessons, clinic hours, internships, practicums and residencies.

Given their extensive education and experience, MDs often take on high-level roles, including executive medical director and chief medical officer, in various settings — hospitals, private practice, the public sector or community health systems. MDs diagnose diseases, manage patient health records, order and interpret medical tests, prescribe drugs, and follow up with patients.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts jobs for physicians to grow by 4% between 2019 and 2029.

What Does a DNP Do?

FNPs are advanced practice registered nurses. Furthermore, a DNP-prepared FNP has completed the highest level of education in nursing and gained the terminal degree, as well as the skills, knowledge and experiences that were a part of that process. With a blend of clinical and leadership responsibilities, DNP-FNPs can provide direct patient care and work in more organizational roles.

DNP-FNPs can also enter independent practice, besides finding employment in hospitals, local clinics, private practice and other institutions. Depending on state laws and regulations, nurse practitioners are afforded a wide amount of autonomy in practice, meaning they can prescribe, diagnose and treat on their own without the direct physician supervision other types of nurses are subject to. Becoming a DNP-prepared FNP can also allow nurses to improve and direct care from beyond the clinic. Earning a DNP opens doors to nurse executive roles, such as executive nursing director and chief nursing officer, and similar nursing positions of policy and operational influence.

Completing a DNP program can also help nursing candidates differentiate themselves in an increasingly hot job market. The BLS projects jobs for nurse practitioners to grow by 45% between 2019 and 2029.

DNP vs. MD Salary

According to May 2020 data from the BLS, DNPs earned a median annual salary of $117,670. Top earners, however, made more than $190,900. MDs earned a median annual income of $208,000. MD salaries range considerably according to practice areas, with anesthesiologists earning a median annual salary of $271,440 and pediatricians earning a median annual salary of $184,570.

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

DNP-prepared FNPs and MDs have some general overlap in their job duties and their areas of focus; both are committed to providing the best care they can. NPs and MDs receive a robust education to get to that level. Daily activities, such as ordering tests and assessing results, are also shared responsibilities, but the main difference between NPs and MDs is in the approach.

There’s a fine line between MDs and DNP-FNPs. The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) defines a primary care physician as someone “specifically trained to provide comprehensive primary care services through residency or fellowship training in acute and chronic care settings.” MDs provide services across the continuum of care and life, but they often do so through a lens of treating specific symptoms and conditions. The American Association of Nurse Professionals (AANP) defines NPs in generally the same way, but it adds that such professionals are distinguished by “their unique emphasis on the health and well-being of the whole person,” noting that these professionals “focus on health promotion, disease prevention, and health education and counseling.”

Talk to Bradley University About an Online DNP

If health professionals feel that DNP-FNP career possibilities better fit their goals, they can seek graduate programs that provide the skills they need for such roles and offer scheduling flexibility, so they can continue working. An online DNP program allows nurses to complete their studies and courses on their own time. Without commuting and attendance requirements, nurses are able to learn when they can and progress through a diverse and rich curriculum that prepares them for the realities and opportunities of being a DNP-FNP.

Interested in more information about online learning at Bradley University? Contact an enrollment adviser for details about our DNP-FNP degree today.

Recommended Readings

Nurse Practitioner Specialties: Types of Nurse Practitioner Roles and Responsibilities

When Will a DNP Be Required for Nurse Practitioners?

Principles of Nursing Leadership: Jobs and Trends



American Academy of Family Physicians, Primary Care

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, What’s a Nurse Practitioner (NP)?

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Physicians and Surgeons