Whats The Difference Between a Physician Assistant & A Nurse Practitioner


For the last twenty years, there has been a trend towards specialized healthcare. With that, several new medical and healthcare professions have emerged that are similar but not exactly the same. Physician assistants and nurse practitioners are two such occupations that are often confused with one another. While they share some similarities, there are a lot of subtle differences that separate them into their own unique functions. Moreover, both occupations serve as popular career alternatives for professionals who have the desire to work in advanced healthcare but aren’t interested in making the commitment required to become a full-on physician.


Nurse Practitioner Breakdown

The most obvious difference between the two professions is that, to become a nurse practitioner (NP), one must attend nursing school. Generally speaking, NPs are registered nurses who have gone on to earn a master’s or doctorate degree in a specialty area of nursing. They employ a patient-centered model, which means that they focus more on disease prevention and health education as well as handle assessment diagnoses and treatment.

NPs must be licensed in the state where they practice, and state regulations also determine whether an NP can work independently or must work with a licensed physician. NP certifications are available through many different organizations, such as the American Nurse Credentialing Center and the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for NPs is approximately $98,190.

“Nurse practitioners have, on average, over 10 years of nursing experience before they go into their practitionership,” said Nurse Practitioner Mary Jo Goolsby, director of research and education at the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners, in an interview with the Washington post. “We’re a little bit different from some clinicians who come right out of school.”


Physician Assistant Breakdown

Physician Assistants typically practice medicine directly under a supervising physician. A key difference between PAs and NPs is that PAs must attend medical school or a center of medicine, rather than nursing school plus graduate school. Because the education requirements are different for each profession, the philosophies that graduates come out of school with are somewhat different. NPs follow a patient-centered model, which means that they focus more on disease prevention and health education as well as handle assessment diagnoses and treatment. On the other hand, physician assistants follow a disease-centered model, which means that they focus more on the biological and pathological components of health.

A PA’s  normal duties include examining, diagnosing and treating patients. They also order x-rays and lab tests and interpret their results. In some instances, they may also prescribe medication, conduct therapy and stitch, splint or cast minor injuries, according to Study.com. Their exact duties are dictated by the supervising physician and state law. Sometimes, PAs might even go and check on homebound patients and can specializing in a number of different areas including internal medicine, family medicine, pediatrics or surgery.

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Areas Available for Specialization

Another key difference between NPs and PAs is in the areas of specialization available to each profession. NPs tend to have greater flexibility and can work in a more diverse range of practice areas, such as geriatrics and mental health. On the flipside, PAs receive a more generalized education that allows them to specialize in other areas, such as emergency medicine and general surgery.


Side By Side Comparison

Nurse Practitioners Physician Assistants
Degree Awarded Master’s Degree or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Physician Assistant Certified (PA-C), usually also a Master’s Degree
Number Practicing in US 155,000 83,600
Percent in Primary Care 70-80% 31%
Number of Education Programs in U.S. 257 DNP Programs 170
Base Salary (2010) $89,845 $89,726


Filling the Physician Gap

According to the American Association of Medical Colleges, it is estimated that the U.S. will face a physician shortage of over 90,000 by 2020. This presents an opportunity for both NPs and PAs to take on greater responsibility within their roles and the greater medical profession. Holly Humphrey, MD, dean for medical education of University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine is a proponent of the idea.

“I am a strong advocate for remembering that physicians are very important leaders of the healthcare team, but the actual care of patients is dependent upon a bigger team that goes beyond physicians,” Humphrey said in an interview with Med Page Today. While there is bound to be a shortage of physicians, the same is not true for PAs and NPs. The main difference between physicians and these physician-extenders is the amount of time spent in training and the amount of autonomy granted during practice. To become an NP or PA, it takes six years of training. Although PAs must always practice under the supervision of a physician, NPs can practice autonomously in 17 states. Because PAs and NPs are skilled at both diagnosing and treating illness, they are essential to solving the primary care shortage problem. Employers can position themselves better for the future by learning about the ongoing shifts in supply and demand. By understanding what is likely to happen, you can proactively staff areas most likely to experience shortages before they occur and have a negative impact on your organization’s ability to deliver top-quality care.

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