Therapy FAQ

NP vs. MD: What’s the Difference and Which One Should You See?

When seeking mental health help, deciding between a nurse practitioner (NP) or doctor (MD) is crucial. Both provide effective therapy services but one may be more suited to your therapy needs than the other. Explore the differences with Grow Therapy.

Therapist Dr. Jaclyn Gulotta By Dr. Jaclyn Gulotta, LMHC

Updated on May 12, 2024

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When seeking help for mental health issues, many people are uncertain about which type of medical professional to turn to. Do they need to see a doctor (MD) or a nurse practitioner (NP) to provide the care they need? 

While both provide valuable services, they have distinct differences in how they approach and treat clients. Understanding the differences between a nurse practitioner and a doctor is essential when considering therapy services.

This article explores the critical differences between nurse practitioners and doctors, the scope of services they provide, and the qualifications they possess to help you make informed decisions when choosing your healthcare provider.

What is a Nurse Practitioner? Definition and Characteristics 

A nurse practitioner (NP) is an advanced practice registered nurse who has completed graduate-level education and clinical training in a specialized area of healthcare. NPs are licensed healthcare providers who diagnose and treat acute and chronic medical conditions, perform physical examinations, and prescribe medication.

Nurse practitioners often specialize in certain areas, such as pediatrics, geriatrics, family practice, or women’s health.

The American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) has indicated that 88% of NPs are certified in primary care. To operate as a psychiatric NP, a nurse practitioner must earn a psychiatric-mental health board certification from the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC). 

Psychiatric mental health nurses are increasingly becoming the go-to healthcare providers for many seeking medical care, including those seeking mental health services and therapy. Many people prefer NPs as their choice of primary health care provider for the following distinct characteristics:

Patient-Centered Approach to Care

NPs are known for their emphasis on overall wellness and disease prevention, as well as their focus on treating the whole person rather than just their medical condition. This holistic approach allows NPs to address a patient’s physical, emotional, and social needs compassionately and comprehensively.

Focus on All-Inclusive Care

NPs uniquely focus on health promotion, counseling, health education, and disease prevention. They guide patients in making healthy lifestyle choices to improve overall well-being, thus lowering the chances of lifestyle-related diseases. In the long run, NPs offer sustainable and relatively low-cost health care compared to other professionals.

Widely Experienced and Compassionate

Since NPs attend to various patients, they have extensive knowledge and experience in healthcare, healthcare systems, and preventative plans. 

Joelle Jean, a Family Nurse Practitioner-BC, affirms, “Nurses are practitioners and primary care providers. NPs can be your child’s primary care provider or your parent’s. They can provide urgent care health services, work as dermatology care providers, or even work as providers in plastic surgery offices.”

NPs are also called Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs) due to their extensive background and practice in caring for patients at their bedsides in various environments like hospitals, care homes, or surgery centers.

An NP may work in one of the following areas of specialization:

NPs must maintain their license through continued education, regardless of their specialty. 

What is an MD? Definition and Characteristics 

MD stands for Doctor of Medicine, a medical degree earned after completing undergraduate education and medical school. After earning their degree, doctors are required to attend further residency training to become licensed practitioners. 

MDs diagnose and treat illnesses, injuries, and other health conditions. They have a wide range of specialties, including psychiatry, neurology, cardiology, and more.

Doctors have unique characteristics that set them apart from other care providers, including the following: 

Final Authority on Medical Matters

Doctors are typically seen as highly authoritative and respected in the medical field. They often have the final say in medical decision-making, especially in emergencies.

Primarily Focused on Medical Treatment 

MDs have various areas of specialties that require additional years of training beyond medical school and residency. Here are a few examples of common medical specialties:

While psychiatric doctors can provide medical and therapy services, they typically focus on medical interventions. However, some psychiatrists also offer therapeutic support to mental health patients, similar to that of a nurse practitioner or therapist. 

The Primary Difference Between an NP and an MD 

There are various distinctions between NPs and MDs. By understanding the differences between these two medical professionals, you can ensure that you are choosing the best provider for your health needs. Here are the significant differences:

Approach to Patient Care

NPs and MDs adopt different approaches to patient care. Medical doctors follow a relatively traditional model involving diagnosing and treating illnesses through medication. The focus is on the physical symptoms of a patient’s condition rather than other external factors, such as lifestyle. They rely on objective testing to guide their medical decisions. 

NPs, on the other hand, take a more holistic approach to patient care and treatment. While providing treatment, they look at a patient’s overall well-being, lifestyle, and personal circumstances. Besides considering the physical signs of disease in a patient, NPs also bring into account the social and emotional factors that may be impacting a patient’s health. 

Education and Training

The education and training to become an MD vary significantly from that of an NP. To become an MD, an individual must pass a Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) before joining a medical college.

After completion of the first degree in medicine or a related field, the professional proceeds to medical school, typically for four years. After medical school, MDs must complete a residency program in their specialty area. The internship typically lasts between three and seven years.

On the other hand, NPs characteristically begin their educational journey by acquiring a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). After completing their bachelor’s degree, NPs must obtain a master’s degree in nursing and pass a certification exam before beginning to practice in their respective states. Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) is the terminal degree in this field.

Scope of Practice

An NP’s scope of practice is limited compared to that of an MD’s. The difference is attributable to the fact that NPs are not doctors. Instead, they are nurses who have obtained additional education and training in a specific area of medicine.

A nurse practitioner is licensed to diagnose and treat specific health conditions, prescribe internal medicine, conduct diagnostic tests, and provide health education. The scope of practice is limited to their specialty. 

Since MDs typically have more education and training than NPs, they are licensed to provide more complex care. MDs can diagnose and treat a wide range of medical conditions. They can perform surgeries, prescribe medications, and provide patient education.

Licensing Requirements

The licensing requirements for NPs vs. MDs differ. MDs must complete medical school studies and a residency program before they are eligible to take the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) and become board-certified practitioners. To maintain their licensure, they must complete continuing medical education (CME) courses throughout their career.

NPs must complete an undergraduate program in nursing and obtain a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree or higher. These professionals must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) and gain a nursing license. Depending on the state they practice in, NPs may also need to pass an additional exam or complete specific nursing programs before being admitted to full practice as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN).

Can You See a Nurse Practitioner for Therapy?

You can see a nurse practitioner for therapy. About 6.5% of all registered NPs have a primary certification in mental health care and psychiatry. These professionals operate in a variety of settings, including:

NPs are a fantastic addition to the care team and serve to complement primary care doctors.

Psychiatric nurse practitioners (PNPs) work collaboratively with other healthcare professionals, like physician assistants, doctors, nurses, and social workers, in providing mental healthcare services. Some PNPs also fill in for psychiatrists and can prescribe medicine to psychiatric patients, but this power may vary depending on the state.

Apart from managing the medical aspect of psychiatric illness, NPs with psychiatry as a sub-specialty are licensed to provide psychotherapy and counseling services to mental health patients. 

Even though nurse practitioners are qualified to provide therapy, it’s essential to consider the nature of your mental health concerns and the severity of your symptoms. A doctor may be a more suitable option if you require more specialized treatment plans or have a complex mental health condition.

Can You See an MD for Therapy? 

You can see an MD for therapy. MDs are licensed physicians who can diagnose and treat medical conditions, including mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.

When doctors complete their degree in medical school, they can go for additional training or specialization in psychiatry during their residency program. The specialized training typically takes three to four years.

Specialized training for psychiatrists mainly focuses on the biological aspects of mental illnesses. Given their training, MDs can prescribe medicines and work with their clients to provide therapy and medication where needed.

After completing the residency program, an MD may also take a written and oral exam by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology to get board certified. The certificate is renewable every 10 years.

MDs are certified in one of the following areas, recognized by the Accreditation Council on Graduate Medical Education:

The above are just a few of the available specializations. When choosing a doctor for your therapy needs, it can be helpful to consider whether they have any specialized training or experience that is particularly relevant to your needs.

The Bottom Line

Both NPs and MDs have unique roles and qualifications that contribute to their ability to provide quality care. Nurse practitioners have a more holistic approach and focus on preventative care, while doctors have a more specialized focus and often lead in medical decision-making. 

The choice between seeing a nurse practitioner or doctor for therapy will depend on individual needs and preferences, but both can be highly effective in addressing mental health concerns. 

Frequently Asked Questions

About the author
Therapist Dr. Jaclyn Gulotta Dr. Jaclyn Gulotta, LMHC

Dr. Jaclyn Gulotta is a licensed mental health counselor with over 10 years of experience in the mental health field. She helps individuals overcome numerous issues, including stress and anxiety disorders, self-esteem issues, relationship issues, depression, behavioral issues, and grief.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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