The Truth Between Nurse Practitioners and Doctors

Nurse Practitioner

By: Eric McMullen


Ever wondered why sometimes you are seeing a nurse practitioner instead of a doctor for an initial appointment? Eric McMullen helps tell the difference between NPs and doctors and why nurse practitioners are crucial to the healthcare system. 

Nurse Practitioners (NPs) play an extremely important role in Canada’s healthcare system. NPs have received certifications to expand their nursing scope of practice and can diagnose some diseases, prescribe certain medications and treatments, perform certain medical procedures, and order and interpret certain diagnostic tests.

Nurse practitioners work in various settings such as hospitals, schools, pharmacies, and medical clinics, where they manage chronic diseases, reduce and control pain, perform physical assessments, and treat fractures and dislocations. 

Canada is currently facing a massive shortage of primary care providers (including doctors, nurses, social workers, support workers, etc). This means that wait times to see a healthcare professional can be long, and the pressure on primary care providers is high. NPs can help to fill this gap by providing high-quality, accessible care to patients. 

As a medical student who has worked on the frontlines of our healthcare system, I can attest to the role of nurse practitioners in keeping our communities healthy and well cared for. I have seen NPs diagnose, prescribe, and perform medical procedures with a high degree of competence.  

I was working alongside a NP at a dermatology clinic and we saw multiple patients who were extremely worried and anxious about having a biopsy done for suspected melanoma (a type of skin cancer). In all of these cases, I was able to see how the NP listened to the patient’s concerns and tried to truly understand what was worrying them the most so they could make the patient feel more comfortable. I think that because nurses have more face time with patients, they are often very empathetic and patient-focused in their care. 

So then, what is the difference between nurse practitioners and doctors? First, let’s see how the College of Nurses of Ontario describes the role of Nurse Practitioners:

NPs are authorized to diagnose, order and interpret diagnostic tests, and prescribe medications and other treatments for clients. NP practice includes health promotion with the aim of optimizing the health of people, families, communities and populations. This enables NPs to practice with diverse client populations in a variety of contexts and practice settings such as acute care, primary care, rehabilitative care, curative and supportive care, and palliative/end-of-life care.

Here is the key difference between a NP and a MD: Education. 

Whereas NPs have completed a Master’s Degree in nursing, medical doctors have completed a medical degree. Both require many licensing exams and some medical doctors also have specialties and that comes with it additional training that allows them to perform more specialized procedures and/or surgeries unique to their scope of practice.

All to say, both nurse practitioners and doctors are vital in Canada’s healthcare system, and which provider you see really depends on the reason you need to see them, where you are located, and what works best for you personally.

Do not forget that much of medicine is team-based, so don’t be surprised if you are seeing more than one provider for your care. The benefit of doing medicine this way is that each member of the healthcare team ends up being really good at their job. 

And let me tell you, the nurse practitioners at GetSkinHelp™ are nothing short of extraordinary and give you unprecedented access to dermatological care. 

About the author

Eric McMullen is a medical student at McMaster University’s Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine. 

Edited December 18, 2023 after it was brought to our attention that we misinterpreted the differences between Nurse Practitioners and Medical Doctors. We apologize and have fixed the error.

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