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

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The health care industry abounds with opportunities for skilled clinicians and compassionate caregivers. A range of specialties and diverse roles exist, from physician to nurse. This allows aspiring health care workers to choose the role that best suits their skills and professional goals.

For example, despite the distinctions between nurse practitioner vs. physician assistant, both roles are vital. Either role may be an excellent choice for those who desire to be involved in direct patient care. A good way to prepare for the nurse practitioner or physician assistant role is to gain some foundational clinical skills and medical knowledge, something that’s achievable through an online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) program.

What’s a Nurse Practitioner?

Nurse practitioners are advanced practice nurses, meaning that they begin their careers as registered nurses. Through additional education and specialization, they become licensed clinicians who are able to provide holistic care to patients across demographics. The nurse practitioner role is highly versatile, and nurse practitioners can be found in virtually all types of health care settings: private practices, hospitals, community clinics, and others.

What Do Nurse Practitioners Do?

The specific responsibilities of a nurse practitioner  may vary, but the most common core duties include the following:

  • Diagnosing a range of medical conditions, including acute and chronic diseases
  • Designing treatment plans and advising patients on how to follow them
  • Educating patients on how to maintain a healthy lifestyle, including wellness promotion and disease prevention
  • Prescribing treatments, including medications, as needed
  • Collaborating with other health care providers, including nurses and doctors

What’s a Physician Assistant?

While the positions have notable similarities, the physician assistant role is ultimately distinct from that of a nurse practitioner. Physician assistants work in conjunction with physicians and often assume many of the same duties and day-to-day tasks. Most of the time, physician assistants work in primary care settings.

What Do Physician Assistants Do?

Like nurse practitioners, physician assistants are primarily focused on providing direct care to their patients. The list of duties and responsibilities of both roles may look similar, but a few distinctions are worth noting. The core duties of the physician assistant include the following:

  • Evaluating patients and diagnosing a range of conditions, including acute and chronic disease
  • Ordering and interpreting lab tests, including blood work, to confirm diagnosis
  • Recording patient medical histories, ensuring accurate and comprehensive documentation
  • Assisting with surgical procedures
  • Counseling patients about their treatment plans, as well as more general topics related to wellness promotion and disease prevention

The specific duties of the physician assistant can vary by practice and physician.

Group of medical professionals standing in a hallway and smiling.

Differences in Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician Assistant Roles

For those who wish to play a direct role in diagnosing and treating patients, either of these roles may prove satisfying. However, some differences between the nurse practitioner vs. physician assistant roles may help prospective medical professionals decide which one is the best fit for them.

Education and Certification

The process of becoming a nurse practitioner is different from the process of becoming a physician assistant.

Nurse practitioners need to be licensed registered nurses, requiring that they earn an undergraduate degree, such as a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), and take the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN). After earning their registered nurse license, prospective nurse practitioners should gain work experience as a registered nurse and pursue a graduate degree, such as an MSN or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). After graduation, they can apply for licensure in their state and take the NCLEX for Nurse Practitioners (NCLEX-NP). The requirements for nurse practitioner licensure can vary by state.

To become a physician assistant, earning a bachelor’s degree — preferably in nursing or a health-related field — is required. Prospective physician assistants should then enroll in a physician assistant training program, which takes a minimum of two years. Physician assistants must gain some experience working under the supervision of another provider before obtaining licensure. They can then take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) to become licensed in their state.

Work Environment

Physician assistants usually work in primary care settings. Nurse practitioners, however, may work in more varied settings, such as primary care clinics and hospitals.

Specialization

Nurse practitioners have many more opportunities for specialized practice than physician assistants. For example, a nurse practitioner can choose to specialize as a family nurse practitioner (FNP), a  psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP), or an adult-gerontology acute care nurse practitioner (AGACNP).

Autonomy

Physician assistants must have agreements in place with supervising physicians. In some states, this is also true of nurse practitioners. However, in 24 U.S. states, nurse practitioners can work without physician supervision, according to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP). In other words, nurse practitioners may work with greater autonomy than physician assistants, although it depends on the state.

Salary and Outlook

While nurse practitioners and physician assistants have competitive salaries, the exact figures and career outlooks differ. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that nurse practitioners earned a median annual salary of $111,680 as of May 2020. The BLS projects a 52% growth rate between 2020 and 2030, much faster than the average for all professions.

The BLS reports that the median annual salary for physician assistants was $115,390 as of May 2020 and projects a 31% growth rate between 2020 and 2030.

A Versatile Nursing Education

No matter which health care role best aligns with your interests, a good way to prepare is through advanced education. Consider enrolling in an online MSN program at Hawai‘i Pacific University. The program offers three specializations — Family Nurse Practitioner, Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner, and Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner — as well as courses such as Advanced Pathophysiology and Advanced Nursing Research. Explore the available specializations, and prepare yourself for a successful career caring for patients.

Recommended Reading:

Burnout vs. Compassion Fatigue in Nursing

Trauma Nursing in Vacation Cities

The Importance of a Nurse’s Role in Patient Safety

Sources:

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, State Practice Environment

National Council of State Boards of Nursing, NCLEX & Other Exams

NCCPA

The Balance Careers, “What Does a Nurse Practitioner (NP) Do?”

The Balance Careers, “What Does a Physician Assistant (PA) Do?”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Physician Assistants