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Can a Career in Nursing Help you Become a Medical Doctor?

From registered nurse (RN) to medical doctor (MD): Is it a path that makes sense?

Allied Health

RN to MD programs: medical myth

There are currently no medical school programs that offer a shortcut or bridge program from RN to MD. Medical school admission candidates must meet the same requirements, generally a high undergraduate GPA and high scores on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). However, an RN's medical knowledge and previous experience could help with higher scores on the MCAT and would be invaluable in medical school.

Before deciding whether to pursue medical school or an advanced nursing degree such as a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) or a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Nursing, consider the following three questions.

#1 Is higher income worth the expense of medical school?

Salaries for physicians are generally considerably higher than those for highly paid nursing professionals. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2011 national mean annual physician and surgeon salary was $184,650, while the national annual mean salary for the highest paid registered nurses (in personal care services) was $85,940 (BLS.gov, 2012).

However, attending medical school is also expensive. According to a 2012-13 Association of American Medical Colleges survey, annual resident tuition/fees at private medical schools ranged from $19,773 to $59,027 with public schools charging between $16,113 and $45,785. In 2011, 86 percent of medical school students graduated with a median debt of $161,300. Most DNP programs avoid publishing a cost figure, but guesstimates place the cost at $25,000 to $30,000.

# 2 Is the outcome worth the time commitment?

The time commitment for medical school is seven to 12 years beyond a four-year bachelor's degree, four years for a medical degree and three to eight years for residency. A sample medical degree curriculum could include:

  • Year 1: anatomy, biochemistry, biology, embryology, human behavior, immunology, neuroscience, physiology
  • Year 2: clinical medicine, microbiology, pathology, pharmacology
  • Year 3: clinical training in medical specialization areas
  • Year 4: clinical rotations in acute and ambulatory care, electives, and inpatient service in a sub-specialty

#3 Do nursing and physician roles provide equivalent job satisfaction?

Because there is very often a significant difference in the health care roles of physicians and nurses, this is perhaps the most important question. A nurse who enjoys working closely with patients, educating and counseling patients and their families on wellness and illness management, may not derive the same job satisfaction in the "big picture" diagnosis and treatment management role of the physician.

Another option: Pursue an advanced nursing degree

Medical school is not the only option available to RNs who seek increased responsibility and career opportunities. Take a look at advanced nursing programs, many of which are available, at least partially, online.

ADN/ASN and RN to BSN programs

RNs with an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN)/Associate of Science in Nursing (ASN) or nursing diploma can work toward a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). In addition to the coursework taught in the first two programs, BSN programs add in-depth courses that provide the nurse with "a better understanding of the cultural, political, economic, and social issues that affect patients and influence health care delivery," according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN). Many RNs work toward a BSN while employed and take advantage of educational benefits offered by employers.

BSN and RN to MSN programs

For nurses who want to specialize in a particular area of medicine, the Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) has historically been the degree necessary to become a nurse practitioner (NP). NP specializations include acute care, family medicine, geriatrics, neonatal care, occupational health, pediatrics, and women's health. Nurse midwives and nurse anesthetists are also NPs. BSN to MSN programs take two to three years of full-time study to complete, and some programs also offer two-year accelerated RN to MSN programs for those with ADN/ASN degrees.

In addition to prerequisite courses in health assessment, nursing research, healthcare theory and practice, nursing leadership, and statistics, core courses can include ethics and health policy. Advanced courses include research and theory, health assessment, NP pharmacology, and practice specialty coursework. A comprehensive exam or thesis project is also generally required.

BSN and MSN to DNP programs

According to the AACN, the DNP will eventually replace the MSN as the required degree for advanced practice nursing. Most MSN to DNP programs require two years of full-time study beyond a master's degree; BSN to DNP programs generally take three years of full-time study.

Core courses for a DNP include epidemiology, informatics, health policy, organizational systems, research and theory, specialty courses, residency courses, and a capstone project that translates theory and research into clinical practice.

In response to medical community controversy about possible public confusion between "doctor" of nursing and "doctor" as normally used to describe a physician, the AACN states "nursing and medicine are distinct health disciplines that prepare clinicians to assume different roles and meet different practice expectations. DNP programs will prepare nurses for the highest level of nursing practice."

Nursing PhD programs

The Ph.D. is appropriate for nurses who wish to pursue research or teach. Ph.D. programs take between four and six years post-master's to complete. Coursework normally includes research methods and statistics, history and philosophy of nursing science, emerging nursing theories, and critical health policy issues as well as in-depth knowledge and theory in their discipline. In most programs, candidates must pass a comprehensive exam before continuing to dissertation and dissertation defense.

Which path to take?

There are pros and cons to both career paths. Advanced degrees in health care, whether an MD, DNP, or Ph.D., require a substantial commitment of time and money and most offer little or no time to work while pursuing the degree. In the final analysis, an individual RN has to weigh all of the pros and cons and decide which degree holds the most promise for future job satisfaction.

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