Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician Assistant: What’s the Difference?

Group of medical personnel in lab coats

Registered nurses can pursue degrees — from the bachelor’s to doctoral level — that open up a variety of job opportunities. With a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), nurses can move into leadership positions or become specialty nurses. With a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), graduates can become nurse practitioners (NPs), also known as advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs).

The Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) prepares individuals for the highest level of clinical nursing practice, while a PhD in Nursing is typically for those who wish to focus on research.

Nurse practitioners and physician assistants (PAs) provide primary care for patients. The following sections explain the differences between an NP and a PA.

Nurse Practitioner vs Physician Assistant

The roles of nurse practitioners and physician assistants are similar, but they differ in some key ways.

What Is a Nurse Practitioner?

Nurse practitioners often perform the customary duties of nurses: performing exams, taking medical histories, operating medical equipment, and consulting with physicians. In addition, nurse practitioners frequently act as primary care providers, taking on many of the same responsibilities as a physician. This includes diagnosing illnesses, prescribing medications, managing treatment plans, ordering laboratory tests, and performing follow-up exams, among other duties. Many nurse practitioners specialize in areas such as geriatrics, pediatrics, or mental health.

Scope of practice for nurse practitioners varies by state; some NPs can practice independently, while others practice through collaborative agreements with physicians. Nurse practitioners must hold a master’s or doctoral degree and complete advanced clinical training, according to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners. They obtain licensure through their state board of nursing.

What Is a Physician Assistant?

Physician assistants perform many of the same duties as nurse practitioners. They examine patients, prescribe medicine, interpret lab results, diagnose illnesses, and more. However, they “practice medicine on healthcare teams with physicians and other providers,” according to American Academy of PAs (AAPA).

Individuals must complete a master’s degree from an accredited physician assistant education program to become a PA. Most programs “require the same prerequisite courses as medical schools” and “require students to have about three years of healthcare training and experience,” the AAPA says. Programs include training in clinical medicine, pharmacology, ethics, and a host of other topics as well as completion of more than 2,000 hours of clinical rotations. Physician assistants must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE), which confers the credential of Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C).

Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician Assistant: Breakdown

The table below, which includes information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, helps clarify some key distinctions between NPs and PAs.

Nurse Practitioner Physician Assistant
Education Requirements MSN or DNP Master’s degree from a physician assistant program
Licensing Varies by state and specialty PANCE
Duties Acting as primary patient care provider Acting as patient care provider on medical team
Supervision Varies, but some NPs provide care autonomously Must have a supervising physician
Study Focus Direct patient care Direct patient care
Time Commitment BSN; MSN, 500 clinical hours; DNP, 1,000 clinical hours Bachelor’s degree; master’s degree; 2,000 clinical hours
Median Salary $107,460 $101,480
Practice Settings Private practice office, physician’s office, hospital, outpatient care center Physician’s office, hospital, outpatient care center

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