What’s the Difference Between a Nurse Practitioner and a Physician Assistant?
There are several differences between nurse practitioners (NPs) and physician assistants (PAs).
Nurse practitioners are advanced-practice nurses who have either a master's degree or doctoral degree in nursing and have completed an accredited NP program. They choose a specialty track based on their population foci in their course of study. For example, they can select pediatrics, adult/ gerontology, psychiatry, women's health, etc. A specific number supervised of clinical hours is required to graduate and for licensure. Some NPs even choose to continue in a residency program to further their clinical experience. Specialty certification in their specialty is required as well to be able to practice. Learn more about the various NP specialties.
Physician assistants must complete a minimum of a bachelor's degree to enroll in a PA program. Physician assistant programs are competitive, so getting an early start in prerequisite work is crucial. A master's degree is awarded after completion of the PA program. PAs are trained in general medicine but can specialize later. Physician assistants must also complete a set number of clinical hours to graduate, and general certification is also required.
Both NP and PA programs can take 2-3 years to complete.
Both nurse practitioners and physician assistants have a clear scope of practice. Physician assistants must work in collaboration with a physician and prescribe under a physician. NPs, in some states, can practice independently. They can even open their own NP-run clinics. However, individual state regulations define specific scope of practice for each role. For example, some states allow NPs to prescribe controlled substances, and some do not. For both practitioners, state laws are becoming more relaxed as the United States faces a nation-wide physician shortage.
Perhaps one of the most significant differences between NPs and PAs is their practice style and approach to patient care. Nurse Practitioners are trained first as nurses, following the nursing model of care. They approach patients holistically and practice patient-centered care. Physician assistants are medically trained, following a medical model of care. They focus on disease processes and how to treat.
Since most PAs work in collaboration with a physician, they tend to work in clinics, hospitals, and nursing facilities. They don't necessarily need a physician on-site, but a physician should be accessible by phone or other communication.
Nurse practitioners also work in clinics, hospitals, and nursing facilities. However, depending on the state in which they practice, they can even own and operate an NP-run clinic.
Both NPs and PAs can work in a specialty area of choice; for example, emergency rooms or surgery clinics.
NPs and PAs have similar pay grades. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, NPs earn a median salary of $107,460 per year. PAs earn a median salary of $104,480 annually. Income can vary depending on the state, city, and organization of employment.
Read our guide to NP salary.
Both NPs and PAs have a promising career outlook. The job outlook for NPs (and other advanced-practice nurses) is expected to rise 31% through 2026, while the PA job outlook is expected to grow 37%. This is due to an increase in demand for healthcare services as a result of an aging baby-boomer population, an emphasis on preventive health, and healthcare legislation. Additionally, the US is experiencing a nation-wide physician shortage. This shortage, along with increased demand, results in more opportunity for mid-level providers such as nurse practitioners and physician assistants.
Both nurse practitioners and physician assistants are essential to the healthcare team. These providers ensure that the healthcare needs are met at a time when access to physicians can be challenging. Both require strict training and are governed by state regulations. The most significant difference is the approach to patient care and level of independent practice.