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Top 13 Reasons to Become a Nurse Practitioner Instead of a Doctor
Written By: Lauren Jacobson MS, RN, WHNP-BC
I wanted to be a doctor from age eight. When my dad was sick and in the hospital, I wanted to be one of the people who helped make him better. I will tell more on this story later, but as I got older and worked my way through school and then college, I started to explore other options in healthcare. Eventually, I landed on becoming a nurse practitioner.
Are you also wondering whether to become a nurse practitioner (NP) or a doctor? Well, you’re not alone and it is an incredibly personal choice that requires information and self-reflection. Here we will review the top 13 reasons to become a nurse practitioner instead of a doctor.
It may be a more nuanced choice than you imagine. Here we will cover things like education time and cost, scope of practice, work-life balance, and more. So, if you're wondering, "why become a nurse practitioner instead of a doctor?", you have come to the right place.
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WHAT ARE THE MAIN DUTIES OF A NURSE PRACTITIONER?
Nurse practitioners are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs)
who through either an MSN-NP or DNP-NP degree have completed additional education and clinical training beyond that of a registered nurse (RN). As such, they have a wide range of responsibilities and duties that vary depending on their specialty and the setting
in which they work.
Nurse practitioners care for a variety of patients. Who they provide care for and what their duties are dependent on the setting and their patient population. Nurse practitioners provide direct patient care including taking medical histories, reviewing patients’ primary health concerns, conducting physical and psychosocial evaluations, ordering tests and procedures, performing procedures, making diagnoses, and treating patients. Importantly NPs educate patients about their health and medical conditions. They follow up with them and ensure that they have the tools they need to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Their clinical work is complemented by working with a diverse team of health professionals and NPs are expert care coordinators. Nurse practitioners are trained to know when they have reached the limit of their skills and/or clinical scope and when to refer to a doctor. Depending on the state, NPs may need to have a supervising or collaborating agreement with a doctor at their practice.
Some NP duties involve administrative work such as patient charting, reviewing medical records, working with insurance, and other duties. NPs may also be responsible for training other members of the healthcare team including new physicians, nurses, nursing assistants, medical assistants, and administrative staff. In addition to main duties, NPs may take on additional duties that are not always required. These may include precepting NP students
or conducting research.
WHAT ARE THE MAIN DUTIES OF A DOCTOR?
Doctors are medical professionals with more training and a broader scope of practice than NPs. They can also practice independently. While they can do all the duties that NPs do, they tend to be less focused on holistic care and may delegate more tasks to other members of the healthcare team (please note that this is a generalization- many doctors choose to practice in different ways from each other).
Doctors are also trained to provide more advanced care. This may include ordering and interpreting more advanced diagnostic procedures, doing more high-risk outpatient procedures, and performing surgeries. Doctors can prescribe medication without oversight.
Doctors work with patients from different populations, with different healthcare statuses and of different ages, however, they often specialize, and their specializations can become quite narrow. For example, a doctor may specialize and train to the extent that they become a pediatric cardiac surgeon.
Doctors can also pursue additional advanced degrees (as can NPs) such as a Ph.D., MPH, MBA, and others. Regardless of whether they choose to pursue these advanced degrees though, doctors can have more autonomy and flexibility to work in healthcare admiration, research, leadership positions, or public health.
Finally, doctors often supervise other healthcare professionals including but not limited to NPs. They may own their own practice, and in states where NPs cannot practice autonomously, doctors will be their supervising physicians
. While they typically train new doctors, they also may train new NPs as well.
WHY BECOME A NURSE PRACTITIONER INSTEAD OF A DOCTOR?
The following are the top 13 reasons why you should become a nurse practitioner instead of a doctor. You will find that many of these reasons are connected to each other. This is because reasons like “flexibility” may be a key part of the reason “job satisfaction.” We hope this article will help you make the decision between becoming a nurse practitioner instead of a doctor.
REASON #1: Flexibility
Flexibility is key to work-life balance
, and becoming a nurse practitioner instead of a doctor might just offer you that. As a nurse practitioner, you will likely have more control over your schedule and be able to create a daily routine that allows you to have more work-life balance. You can choose an outpatient position that’s more or less 9 to 5 or choose to work in shifts at a hospital to work around changing life demands. Whatever you choose, nurse practitioners have more time for other life commitments such as family, activities, friends, travel, and other hobbies.
As an NP, you can also work part-time and pick up shifts or positions in other clinical fields, or with different patient populations that interest you. This flexibility can keep things exciting while also augmenting your overall income
As a doctor, chances are you will be bound to a more rigid schedule due to the number of patients you need to bill for, working various shifts, and paying off that hefty student debt we will talk about in reason number 3.
REASON #2: Fewer years in school
One of the key factors for me deciding to become a nurse practitioner instead of a doctor was the amount of schooling required. I was in my twenties and wanted to have a social life. That’s not to say NP school isn’t hard work, it is…but two years versus four, plus four more of residency, plus possibly two for a fellowship? That needs to be considered carefully, no matter what stage of life you are in.
REASON #3: Less student debt
Like most Americans, you are probably terrified about student debt. Since nurse practitioner programs are typically shorter than medical school, they also tend to be less expensive
. This means you will have fewer student loans to repay. So, becoming a nurse practitioner instead of a doctor can be a more cost-effective way to being a clinician.
If I can offer some advice from my personal experiences though, it would be to avoid going to a super prestigious but also very expensive school to become an NP. In the US we often correlate money with quality, but the reality nowadays is that there are many very high-quality public or state schools that can be much more cost-effective.
I loved studying at Boston College. I don’t think I would change my path at all because I love where I am today. However, I am aware that I have $160,000 in student debt (including about $30,000) from my bachelor’s in forensic science. This could have been avoided if I did not fall for the “private school trap
I have more advice regarding education costs. Even if you do go to a private school and end up paying through the nose for your degree, you can still work while you study to earn a bit of money and mitigate the costs of your education. My school told us that we absolutely could not work during the program… but this was a very privileged message to send. That simply was not an option for me.
I started freelancing in NP school and since I did a direct entry program, I wasn’t an RN to start with. However, as soon as I became one, I started working part-time. This is not something that doctors can do. They don’t have this middle-ground degree where they can start gaining patient care experience and earn money during school.
REASON #4: Working with doctors
Being a nurse practitioner is not so separate of a field as one might think. Yes, we are trained through nursing versus medical theory, and yes autonomy, scopes of practice, and approach to patient care can be different, but it’s not like as a nurse practitioner you will be not interacting with doctors. In fact, you are likely to be working alongside them.
Not only does this mean that you will have ample opportunity to collaborate with doctors, but you will also likely be learning from them as well. Not only will this provide you with new learning opportunities, but this will also just make you a more well-rounded provider.
I am going to make a generalization here - note that I know this is not true for everyone, in fact I think the landscape is changing more and more. However, it can be more common for doctors to actively teach nurse practitioners rather than the other way around. This can be due to the historical structure of medicine being heirarchal. That said, I had numerous collaborative learning experiences with my physician colleagues, and I wouldn’t change that for the world.
Being able to collaborate with and have mutual learning opportunities with your doctor colleagues can make you a better NP and improve patient care.
REASON #5: Prevention
As a nurse practitioner, you will focus on preventive care
. This means that you will help patients maintain health, avoid illness, and be empowered to manage their own physical and mental well-being. It’s not that doctors don’t do these things, but it is more integrated into the way in which NPs work and are trained. An advantage of becoming a nurse practitioner instead of a doctor is that you can really focus on preventive care which has numerous benefits for patient well-being and the healthcare system.
When I worked as a nurse practitioner, I loved providing preventive care. I truly felt that it was an excellent way to empower patients in making decisions about their care and staying healthy. When patients understand their bodies and can avoid illness, patients are grateful and the healthcare system functions better.
REASON #6: More time with your patients
You are becoming a nurse practitioner because you want to provide patient care. This means that interacting with your patients and spending time with them must be of some value to you. NPs often have more time to spend with their patients and their training is more holistically focused. This means that we may place greater value on or at least prioritize the health history-taking and rapport-building with our patients in a way that is different from what doctors do (another generalization here).
If spending time with your patients is something you are looking forward to, becoming a nurse practitioner instead of a doctor may be the choice for you.
REASON #7: More opportunities to change your focus
One of the top reasons to become a nurse practitioner instead of a doctor is that you will have more opportunities to change your clinical and/or population focus. While you will specialize in your population during NP school (like family nurse practitioner
), this does not mean that you are locked into one specific setting.
In fact, nurse practitioners can work in several settings such as outpatient pediatrics, community health centers, emergency departments, and hospital wards. Regardless of your population focus you may also be able to further specialize by taking certification courses in oncology, psychiatric mental health, and others.
Finally, even if you are a women’s health nurse practitioner and you decide you want to go back to school to be a family nurse practitioner, you can do so- and often for a shorter amount of time than if you were just starting out.
This is different than doctors because doctors often lack this level of career flexibility. Once they complete their residency, and particularly if they further specialize, it can be very time-consuming and expensive to change direction.
REASON #8: Higher job satisfaction
Nurse practitioners consistently report high levels of job satisfaction
. This is another top reason to become a nurse practitioner instead of a doctor. NPs are able to have a solid level of autonomy while also providing thorough patient care, collaborating with a healthcare team
, and maintaining work-life balance. Nurse practitioners have flexibility in their jobs and know that they have good job security. All these factors and more contribute to high job satisfaction.
This is not to say that you won’t love your job as a doctor. If this is the path for you, then you will probably be satisfied with your job. However, doctors may have less work-life balance than nurse practitioners if they are not working in a primary care or outpatient setting. This, along with less job security (reason #9) may lead to overall less job satisfaction if the pros don’t outweigh the cons.
REASON #9: Job security
We just talked about this in the previous reason, but let’s unpack it a bit more. With the aging baby boomer generation, there is a large group of patients with chronic non-communicable diseases requiring more regular and in-depth care as well as palliative and end-of-life care. Nurse practitioners are uniquely suited to meet this demand.
This means that NPs are increasingly needed over the next 10 years. Between 2021 and 2031 the Bureau of Labor Statistics
estimates that the demand for NPs will grow by 46%. This is much better than the 3% change predicted
between 2021 and 2031 for physicians and surgeons. This documented job security is one reason to become a nurse practitioner instead of a doctor.
REASON #10: Autonomy and independent practice
The nurse practitioner role has been around for a long time and since it has been here, there has been a contentious fight for NPs to gain the autonomy that they are trained to have. This fight has played out between the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) and the American Medical Association (AMA)
repeatedly and is often seen on a state level.
Nowadays, NPs can work independently in many states
with little to no required physician oversight. Since COVID-19 many states including Massachusetts (previously was a restrictive state for NPs due to the medical board presence) have shifted to allowing NPs full independent practice.
The argument can be made that doctors have more autonomy (which is true) and if you want the ability to practice independently you should become a doctor instead of a nurse practitioner. However, with the recent expansion of practice rights across numerous states, this may no longer need to be the deciding factor between becoming an NP or a doctor. Depending on the state, NPs can have independent practice as well, though their scope of practice will be less than doctors.
REASON #11: Provision of holistic care
Nurse practitioners are trained to view patients holistically, considering their physical, emotional, and social needs. As an NP, focus during your career as well as during training will be placed on developing a relationship with patients and looking at all the factors that contribute to patient well-being and/or illness. These social themes are referred to social determinants of health
With a more holistic focus to providing patient care, NPs help patients learn about and take responsibility for their health. This can help empower them to make lifestyle modifications that help them achieve better health and prevent illness. Since doctors often have less time to spend with patients and more financial incentive to see more patients in a day, their approach may not be so holistically oriented.
REASON #12: Less Risk of BurnoutBurnout
is a common problem among doctors due to high workloads, long hours, and high levels of stress. While burnout is a significant problem in the healthcare industry among all sorts of professionals, nurse practitioners may be at a lower risk of burnout than physicians due to the unique aspects of their role. NPs have more flexibility in their job, less demands to make a certain level of income due to lower education costs, and better work-life balance.
Additionally, by having been trained in providing more holistic care and maintaining well-being, NPs may be more uniquely positioned to examine their life and make changes necessary to avoid burnout. By becoming a nurse practitioner instead of a doctor your risk for burnout will be lower.
REASON #13: Strong Patient Advocacy
Nurse practitioners are nurses first, and as such they are expert patient advocates. If you have ever tried to navigate the US healthcare system, I am sure you can understand why needing an advocate is necessary. Even the most health-literate patients need support. It can be incredibly daunting to make informed decisions about your health when you feel vulnerable. NPs are known to stand by their patient’s sides and assist them with making healthcare decisions that are truly the best for them.
Outside of the exam room NPs are involved in all sorts of advocacy campaigns. Whether it’s reproductive rights, affordable and accessible care, or advocating for vulnerable populations such as immigrants or the LGBTQI+ community, you will see NPs sitting at the table and using their voices.
Doctors are also patient advocates both inside and outside of the exam room. The power of a physician's voice behind an advocacy campaign should not be understated. Doctors often delegate patient education to nurses and/or nurse practitioners, and NPs are very actively taught to be their patients’ advocates as they navigate healthcare. Depending on the type of advocacy that is near and dear to your heart, becoming a nurse practitioner instead of a doctor may be the right choice.
MY FINAL THOUGHTS
This article covers the top 13 reasons to become a nurse practitioner instead of a doctor, and hopefully, you find it helpful as you navigate this enormous life decision. As you can see here, becoming a nurse practitioner instead of a doctor isn’t just about wanting less time in school (like some families might think). NP school is tough and deciding which route to go is an extremely personal decision.
As you have probably noticed, many of these reasons are connected to each other. Deciding to become a nurse practitioner instead of a doctor is a deeply personal choice and one that should be made with a lot of self-reflection and honesty. However, if you or people you know are wondering “why become a nurse practitioner instead of a doctor?” I hope this article has helped clear that up for you.
Regardless of the path you choose, you will have a rewarding career and get to make a tangible change on the lives of others. So, take your time, do your research, and choose the career that is right for you.
Lauren Jacobson MS, RN, WHNP-BC
Lauren Jacobson is a registered nurse and women’s health nurse practitioner who is passionate about global health and gender-based violence prevention. She is Editor and an Advisory Board Member for the Global Nursing Caucus and volunteers with Physicians for Human Rights as a medical evaluator for asylum seekers.