What Are The Differences Between a DNP and an MD?

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Nurse executive with team

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 two career paths: Doctor of Nursing Practice – Family Nurse Practitioner (DNP-FNP) and Doctor of Medicine (MD). Individuals in these roles undergo some of the most 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, as in research or policy.

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

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 professional focus; both are committed to providing the best care they can to patients and populations. NPs and MDs receive a robust education to get to that level. Daily activities like ordering tests and assessing results are also shared responsibilities, but the main difference between NPs and MDs lies in the approach.

There is a fine line between MDs and DNP-FNPs. The American Academy of Family Physician (AAFP) defines a primary care phsyician 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 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 adds that such professionals are distinguished by “their unique emphasis on the health and well-being of the whole person … [w]ith a focus on health promotion, disease prevention, and health education and counseling.”

Highlights of the MD role

MDs can specialize in various fields like family practice, cardiology, gerontology, acute or chronic care, and surgery. Yet before they reach that stage, medical doctors 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.

Overall, the position of medical doctor can offer a financially rewarding career for those who undergo the decade, give or take, of school needed to earn an MD. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics measured the median salary of physicians at more than $208,000 and predicted job growth of 13 percent for physicians between 2016 and 2026.

Highlights of the DNP-FNP role

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 practices 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 immediate 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 projected 36 percent job growth for nurse practitioners between 2016 and 2026.

Talk to Bradley University about an online DNP

If health professionals feel the 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 Doctorate of Nursing Practice program allows nurses to complete their studies and courses on their own timelines. 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 advisor for details about our DNP-FNP degree today.


Recommended Readings

Career Spotlight: Pediatric Nurse Practitioner

DNP vs. Ph.D.: What’s The Difference?

Bradley University Online DNP Program



U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics


American Academy of Family Physicians

American Association of Nurse Practitioners