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Physician Assistant vs Nurse Practitioner: What Are the Differences?

The many different job titles and abbreviations that follow a health care professional’s name can be incredibly confusing, even for those of us in the health care field.

Two particular job titles that may seem incredibly similar to some people but in reality have many key differences are those of physician assistant (PA) and nurse practitioner (NP). Here are the main similarities and differences between the two.

What PAs and NPs Do

Both nurse practitioners and physician assistants provide direct advanced patient care. However, the way they approach patient care is the primary difference between the two professions.

Nurse practitioner’s approach patient care with the mindset of the nursing model, which focuses on treating the patient as a whole. Physician assistants are trained to provide care based on the medical model of health care, which focuses on diagnosing and treating the disease. 

Each state has its own definition for what a physician assistant or nurse practitioner is allowed to do within their scope of practice.

In general, nurse practitioners and physician assistants examine and assess patients, diagnose issues, and prescribe some treatments and medications. The types of medications they can prescribe vary based on the state they practice in.

Additionally, nurse practitioners decide what they will specialize in before they become nurse practitioners, and their exact roles and responsibilities will vary based on their specialty. 

Where NPs and PAs Work

Nurse practitioners and physician assistants can work in a variety of clinical settings, including private practice offices, clinics, and hospitals. 

Both may work alongside and under the oversight of a medical doctor, but physician assistants are required to always practice under a medical doctor. 

How much oversight a medical doctor is required to provide for a physician assistant will vary by state. In some states, you may need to have the supervising physician in the same room as the physician assistant during care, while other states only require that the physician be accessible via phone. 

On the other hand, 23 states allow nurse practitioners to own and operate their own practice and work independently. 

How to Become an NP or PA

Whether you want to become a physician assistant or a nurse practitioner, the first thing you’ll need before applying to a program is a bachelor’s degree.

For a physician assistant, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree in a science-based specialty. If becoming a nurse practitioner is your goal, you’ll need a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree.

You’ll also need some sort of relevant health care experience. For those interested in becoming a nurse practitioner, that means working as a registered nurse for at least a year or two. 

Those going the physician assistant route should also plan to work, job shadow, or volunteer in the medical field. Possible options including working as or shadowing an RN, paramedic, medical assistant, medical social worker, surgical tech, and any other health care profession.

Once you’ve met those requirements, then you apply to your desired master’s program. For nurse practitioners, that’s a graduate-level nurse practitioner program, and for physician assistants, they’ll apply to a graduate-level physician assistant program. 

Regardless of which path you take, programs last on average two to three years and include both classroom work and hands-on clinical experience. 

For nurse practitioners, your program will prepare you to enter your chosen specialty upon graduation. On the other hand, physician assistant programs focus on a more generalized clinical practice approach for medical and surgical care and will touch on a variety of specialties.

How Much Do They Make

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nurse practitioners made an average of $115,800 per year or $55.67 per hour, and physician assistants earned an average of $112,260 per year with an average pay of $53.97 per hour.

The overall job outlooks for both of these professions are better than the national average for other jobs. For nurse practitioners, it’s expected that demand for them will grow by 45% over the next decade. Overall demand for physician assistants is expected to grow 31% over the same time period.

Physician Assistant vs Nurse Practitioner: Which is Right for You?

If you’re debating between becoming a nurse practitioner or a physician assistant, then your current experiences and education level will likely play a huge factor in which one you choose.

If you’re already an RN or are planning to become one, and especially if you have an idea of what patient demographic you want to specialize in caring for, then becoming a nurse practitioner is a logical step.

If you have or are planning on getting a generalized science degree and have non-registered nursing experience in the medical field, then you might be more likely to consider going the route of a physician assistant, which will train you for a more generalized medical approach.

However, RNs have the option of pursuing a physician assistant path, and in the end, which of the two career paths you choose is up to you. Both nurse practitioners and physician assistants fill valuable and vital roles in health care teams.

Michelle Paul

Michelle Paul is an RN Content Specialist at Clipboard Health. She has worked with a variety of patient demographics, ranging from young adults in foreign countries, to elderly residents in skilled nursing facilities, to healthy blood donors in her community. Her experience in content creation gives her a unique perspective on communication within the healthcare field.

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