DNP Meaning Explained: DNP vs MD vs NP

4 Min Read Published September 21, 2023
DNP Meaning

DNPs are distinguished healthcare professionals who hold a terminal nursing degree. They often specialize in advanced clinical care, leadership, and evidence-based research.

Over the past decade, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) reported a surge in DNP programs and graduates. Although the number of DNPs continues to grow, there's still some confusion about what they do. This is especially true when comparing DNPs to medical doctors (MDs) and nurse practitioners (NPs).

This article explores DNP meaning and compares it to other advanced healthcare degrees and roles. Read on to understand what DNP means and how it differs from MD and NP education, scope of practice, responsibilities, and more.

What Does DNP Mean?

DNP is a medical abbreviation that stands for doctor of nursing practice. Having a DNP means you have a terminal professional nursing degree emphasizing advanced clinical practice, leadership, and evidence-based research. 

This degree is for experienced nurses seeking to enhance their expertise while expanding career options and earning potential.

DNP-prepared nurses can provide high-quality, specialized patient care while contributing to healthcare policy. They also work toward advancing nursing practice through rigorous academic and clinical training.

What Do DNPs Do?

DNPs are highly trained, advanced nursing professionals who play critical roles in the healthcare industry. Building upon their clinical expertise and leadership skills, DNPs address complex healthcare challenges, improve patient outcomes, and shape healthcare policies. 

Learn more about their most significant responsibilities below:

Advanced Clinical Practice

DNPs provide specialized and evidence-based care to patients, ensuring the highest level of clinical expertise and patient-centered care.

Leadership and Management

Many leadership roles in healthcare organizations will go to a DNP, meaning they guide teams of healthcare professionals and implement quality changes to enhance care and maximize healthcare delivery operations.

Healthcare Policy Advocacy

DNPs often actively advocate for healthcare policies that promote accessible care, equity, and improved healthcare outcomes for patients regardless of background.

Applied Research

DNPs often conduct research to advance nursing practice, patient care, and healthcare delivery. Their research contributes to evidence-based practices that improve patient safety.

Education and Mentorship

Additionally, DNPs serve as educators and mentors, preparing the next generation of nursing professionals. They instill compassion, competence, and ethical practice in their apprentices.

Interdisciplinary Collaboration

DNPs also work with healthcare professionals from varying disciplines. This collaboration ensures holistic and comprehensive patient care and promotes teamwork and effective communication across the healthcare spectrum.

DNP vs MD Key Differences

DNPs and medical doctors are distinct healthcare degrees that lead to different career paths. While both professionals contribute to patient care and well-being, their education, training, and scopes of practice vary significantly.

Educational Background

  • DNP: DNPs are advanced practice registered nurses who typically hold an MSN before pursuing their DNP degree.

  • MD: MDs are physicians who graduate from medical school after completing a bachelor's degree.

Training and Specialization

  • DNP: These healthcare professionals specialize in various nursing fields, such as family practice, mental health, pediatrics, or anesthesia, and receive extensive clinical training in their chosen areas of expertise.

  • MD: MDs undergo broad medical training, followed by residency and fellowship programs to specialize in a specific medical discipline, such as cardiology, surgery, neurology, etc.

Scope of Practice

  • DNP: DNPs primarily focus on providing advanced nursing care, including assessment, diagnosis, treatment, and prescribing medications within their specialty area.

  • MD: MDs diagnose and treat medical conditions, perform surgeries, and prescribe medications for various health conditions.

Career Opportunities

  • DNP: DNPs typically work in clinical settings, like clinics, hospitals, private practices, and community health centers.

  • MD: MDs can work in various healthcare settings, including hospitals, private practices, research institutions, and academia.

DNP vs NP Key Differences

DNPs and nurse practitioners are related but have distinct roles within the nursing profession. DNPs and NPs are advanced practice registered nurses but differ in education, training, and scope of practice. If you want detailed information about NP vs DNP degrees, check out our guide to the differences between DNP and NP.


  • DNP: A DNP is a doctoral-level degree nurses can pursue after completing undergraduate or graduate coursework. Additionally, there are direct-entry DNP programs for those with a non-nursing bachelor's degree.

  • NP: NPs typically hold a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree or a post-masters certificate in an NP specialization. But some universities also award a DNP degree to nurse practitioners, depending on the program.

Scope of Practice

  • DNP: DNPs have a broader scope of practice beyond clinical responsibilities. These professionals also focus on leadership, healthcare policy, evidence-based practice, and advanced patient care.

  • NP: NPs focus on providing direct patient care within their chosen specialty. Typical NP specialties include family practice, pediatric care, adult gerontology, or psychiatric mental health.

Training and Specialization

  • DNP: Though DNPs may choose a specific area of specialization, their training also includes aspects of leadership, research, and system-level healthcare management.

  • NP:  NPs receive focused training in their chosen specialization. Their training allows them to diagnose and treat patients, prescribe medications, and provide comprehensive care within their area of expertise.

Career Opportunities

  • DNP: DNPs often pursue roles in healthcare administration, policy-making, nursing education, or advanced clinical practice.

  • NP: NPs primarily work in clinical settings, like clinics, hospitals, private practices, and community health centers.

Advancement and Research

  • DNP: DNPs can lead and contribute to nursing research, implementing evidence-based practices to improve patient outcomes and healthcare delivery.

  • NP: NPs may engage in research but primarily focus on direct patient care and clinical practice.

Find Out More About DNPs

DNP meaning isn’t just about what DNPs do; it’s also about how their roles and responsibilities fit in amongst other healthcare professions. DNP means doctor of nursing practice, but it differs from other doctorate-trained medical professionals like MDs. DNPs also take on different roles than other advanced practice registered nurses, like NPs.

If you want to learn more about what it means to be a DNP nurse, check out these resources:

James Mielke
James Mielke Contributor

James Mielke is a freelance writer currently based in Louisville, Kentucky. In addition to writing extensively about higher education and career topics, he has contributed to Eaten: The Food History Magazine, The Midwesterner, and Golfweek. James has a history degree from Nashville's Belmont University and is on a spiritual quest to make the world's best biscuit.

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