Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician Assistant: Know the Difference

If you’re considering a career in healthcare—or you’re a healthcare professional looking to take your career to the next level—you’ve probably wondered about the differences between a nurse practitioner vs physician assistant. And for good reason! They’re similar professions, so it’s understandable that you might not know which career path is right for you.

Let’s explore the differences between a nurse practitioner vs physician assistant!

What is a Nurse Practitioner?

A nurse practitioner (NP) is an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) who’s capable of providing advanced medical care. Like registered nurses (RNs), nurse practitioners focus on patient observation and care. But unlike RNs, nurse practitioners can independently prescribe treatment and medication, order tests, give diagnoses, and overall possess higher amounts of autonomy. Other general responsibilities of nurse practitioners include performing physical examinations, operating medical equipment, counseling patients on health promotion and disease prevention, and more.

It’s important to note, however, that an NP’s scope of practice may vary depending on their state, the type of healthcare facility they work in, and which population they serve (women’s health, geriatric, etc.).

What is a Physician Assistant?

As the name suggests, a physician assistant (PA) is a healthcare professional who’s trained to provide medical care under the direction and supervision of a licensed physician. They may work in areas such as:

  • General medicine
  • Pediatrics
  • Radiology
  • Dermatology
  • Cardiology
  • Psychiatry

Physician assistants are considered advanced practice providers. As such, they’re capable of performing a variety of medical duties.

Their day-to-day responsibilities might include services like collecting a patient’s medical history, ordering diagnostic tests and x-rays, giving diagnoses, prescribing medications and treatments, stitching wounds, conducting physical exams, counseling patients on preventative care, and even assisting surgical staff during procedures. Apart from their standard medical duties, they may also collaborate with medical office administrators to perform clerical duties like scheduling appointments and ordering supplies.

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

As you’ve probably guessed, there are many similarities between nurse practitioners and physician assistants. They’re both advanced practice providers, provide similar services in terms of patient care, and need a similar skill set of both hard and soft skills (like good communication, listening skills, and extensive medical knowledge).

What is the difference between an NP vs PA, then? Let’s review:

NP vs PA: Approach to Care

Despite the many similarities that exist between the two professions, there are still key differences. The first difference when it comes to nurse practitioners vs physician assistants is the model under which they practice.

  • Nurse practitioners practice under the nursing model. This means that NPs take a holistic approach to patient care, looking at the whole person (their physical, emotional, and social needs) rather than just the condition, injury, or illness.
  • Physician assistants, on the other hand, are trained in and practice under the medical model. The medical model is a traditional approach to healthcare that focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of disease. It’s based on biomedical and scientific knowledge, and relies heavily on technology, laboratory tests, and diagnostic procedures. Generally speaking, the medical model aims to treat disease and does not consider the potential influences an illness can have on a patient’s emotional or social wellbeing.

It’s possible that many PAs and NPs use a combination of medical and nursing model practices when treating patients, but knowing the difference between their general approach to care can help you understand the overall differences between a nurse practitioner vs physician assistant—and thus help you choose a fulfilling career path.

NP vs PA: Qualifications and Education

If you’re choosing between a career as an NP vs PA, you need to know what their education path looks like as well as their overall qualifications.

NPs typically hold a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree from an accredited nursing school and are licensed as RNs before entering an NP program. They must also pass a national certification exam in their specialty area (neonatal, women’s health, psychiatry, etc.).

Other specific qualifications for NPs include:

  • Completing a certain amount of clinical hours
  • Acquiring a state-specific license
  • Periodically renewing certifications and state licenses

PAs typically hold a Master of Physician Assistant Studies (MPAS) degree from a medical school or medical center. They must also pass a national certification exam. Unlike NPs, however, physicians assistants do not need to be licensed as registered nurses before entering a PA program.

Another difference between NPs vs PAs is that PAs are usually educated in general medicine (while nurse practitioners usually serve a specific population).

Specific qualifications for PAs include:

  • Obtaining a minimum of 2,000 clinical hours
  • Passing the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE)
  • Receiving the Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C) credential
  • Acquiring a state-specific license
  • Passing a recertification exam every 7-10 years

NP vs PA: Autonomy

Overall, nurse practitioners have more autonomy than physician assistants.

PAs typically work under the supervision of a physician, but the level of supervision can vary by state. They are generally not able to practice independently or make decisions about patient care without the oversight of a physician.

NPs, however, have full practice authority in 23 states as of January 2023. This means that they’re capable of performing many of the same duties as physicians without oversight from a licensed physician.

NP vs PA: Job Outlook and Salary

The job outlook for both PAs and NPs is positive, making both professions an attractive career path for any future healthcare professional!

According to Staffing Industry Analysts (SIA), there has already been significant growth in the supply of advanced practice registered nurses—which includes nurse practitioners—and physician assistants over the last two decades. By 2031, employment of APRNs is projected to grow by 40%, while PA employment growth is projected at 28%.

Demand for both positions is growing at a much faster rate than average, mostly to account for the physician shortage the healthcare system is currently experiencing (and will likely continue to experience in the coming years).

Both positions are sure to be in high demand in the foreseeable future, but what about salary? There’s not a huge difference here, either. In May 2021:

Nurse Practitioner or Physician Assistant? Choose the Right Path

In summary, NPs and PAs are both advanced practice providers who play important roles in the healthcare system and are essential to providing high-quality care to patients. When you’re ready to launch the healthcare career that’s right for you, head over to the Insight Global job board! We have thousands of open positions waiting for your resume.