3 differences between a Nurse Practitioner and a Physician Assistant

Registered nurse

Considering a career as an nurse practitioner or physician assistant? Here are the similarities and differences between the two occupations.

What’s the difference between a Nurse Practitioner and Physician Assistant?

The most commonly asked question among students interested in pursuing a health care career is "What’s the difference between a Nurse Practitioner (NP) and Physician Assistant (PA)?" A career in the health care field can be extremely rewarding, but getting there requires several years of classes, training and learning. This kind of commitment means you need to be aware of your options.

Here are three differences to consider:

1. Both fields pursue (different) higher education and examinations

When nurses advance from a bachelor's to a master's or doctoral degree and complete an exam, they receive a nurse practitioner certification. Physician assistants also need to complete their master's degree and follow their own certification process, the Physician Assistant National Certification Exam (PANCE).

Both parties need to retest every few years in order to maintain their certification:

2. Most physician assistants practice medicine autonomously

In most states, upon completion of their education and certification process, physician assistants work with a physician under a collaborative agreement, but their day-to-day work usually does not require any direct MD oversight. Physician assistants often operate independent PA-led clinics, and their physician interaction is usually limited to a few monthly on-site visits.

While about half of the states now grant nurse practitioners freedom to practice and prescribe independently without having any collaborative agreement with an MD, many states still require nurse practitioners to maintain collaborative agreements with physicians and are not considered independent practitioners.

Find Physician Assistant jobs in your area

3. Nurse practitioners are more patient-centered; Physician assistants are more disease-centered

Nurse practitioners tend to have a long-term approach to working with patients. This is increasingly important when you look at the role of chronic disease in America. Nearly half of all Americans suffer from some form of chronic disease, and two thirds of all death is caused by chronic disease such as cancer or diabetes. Nurse practitioners work with patients to form long-term health plans and provide health education and counseling to those at risk.

What’s more, nurse practitioners typically care for a certain population of people. For example, they may specialize in adult and geriatric health, pediatric health or psychiatric and mental health.

Find Nurse Practitioner jobs in your area

Physician assistants typically are more disease-centered. They work with physicians to identify problems with patients and brainstorm treatments and eventual cures. Their goal is to work with physicians to get patients as healthy as can be and back on their feet.

Despite these differences, both career fields complete
  • patient assessments,
  • prescribe treatment and
  • perform diagnostic tests to determine the health of their patients.

While their education and legal practice operations may be different, the type of candidates that both fields attract is incredibly similar. Nurse practitioners and physician assistants pursue their careers because they want to help people and have a passion for comforting patients and making them as healthy as possible.


Discover the nursing career path that’s right for you with this handy infographic:

Find your career path in nursing