Nurse practitioners and physician assistants are two fields growing in both popularity and demand. In fact, nurse practitioners are expected to be the fastest-growing occupation in the U.S. over the next decade, while the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the number of physician assistants to grow by 28% between 2021 and 2031.
But what exactly is the difference between nurse practitioners and physician assistants? While these professions have plenty of similarities, there are also some key differences between them to note. We highlight three of these differences below to help you decide which route may be best for you and your career.
What is a nurse practitioner?
A nurse practitioner is a nurse who has completed advanced clinical training and education and does a little bit more than a registered nurse. Nurse practitioner duties include many of the same services as those of a doctor, including physical exams, diagnosing and treating conditions and diseases, and prescribing medications. You can think of a nurse practitioner as being somewhere between a registered nurse and a doctor.
What is a physician assistant?
A physician assistant practices medicine under the direction and supervision of a doctor. While not a licensed doctor, many of a physician assistant's duties are identical to those of a doctor, such as performing examinations, prescribing medications, ordering lab work, and developing treatment plans. While still considered generalists, physician assistants often work in a specialty practice just like a doctor, which can include pediatrics, women's health, and plastic surgery.
"A nurse practitioner is more patient centered and takes more of a holistic, nursing approach to care. A physician assistant is typically more disease-centered and follows more of a medical model."
How are nurse practitioners and physician assistants similar?
Before diving into the differences between nurse practitioners and physician assistants, let's first establish in what ways these two professions are similar. Some of the shared characteristics and responsibilities among both nurse practitioners and physician assistants include:
- Both are licensed healthcare professionals who may work alongside physicians.
- Both require a graduate degree, clinical training, and board certifications.
- Both work directly with patients to diagnose and treat illnesses, prescribe medications, order diagnostic tests, and more.
- Each may act as a primary care provider.
How are nurse practitioners and physician assistants different?
Below are three critical differences between nurse practitioners and physician assistants.
They have different approaches to healthcare
A nurse practitioner is more patient-centered and takes more of a holistic, nursing approach to care. Nurse practitioners typically focus on certain populations, such as seniors, women, or children, as opposed to focusing on a particular type of medicine. Nurse practitioners take a long-term approach to care, emphasizing education and counseling.
A physician assistant is typically more disease-centered and follows more of a medical model. That means physician assistants provide care through a means of disease management and prevention while specializing in specific fields of medicine, such as dermatology or orthopedics.
They may work differently with others
Some states do not recognize nurse practitioners as independent care providers and require them to maintain a collaborative agreement with a physician. However, many states do allow nurse practitioners the freedom to practice care and prescribe medications independently.
Nurse practitioners typically work in hospitals, outpatient clinics, long-term nursing facilities, doctor's offices, urgent care centers, or health departments.
Despite their name, physician assistants actually don't work very closely alongside physicians on a day-to-day basis. Physician assistants work under a collaborative agreement with physicians, but their everyday work remains largely independent, and they may only interact with a physician a few times per month. Many physician assistants even lead their own clinics.
Physician assistants can be found in hospitals, urgent care centers, retail and community clinics, outpatient offices, educational institutions, and correctional facilities.
They require different training
The education and training regimens for nurse practitioners are different from those of physician assistants. Those pursuing a career as a nurse practitioner should earn a bachelor's degree in nursing followed by a master's or doctorate in nursing. You will then have to pass the National Council Licensure Examination, which will allow you to practice as a registered nurse. A national certification exam is then needed to become a nurse practitioner, and recertification is required every five years.
A person striving to be a physician assistant will want to earn a master's degree in physician assistant studies and complete at least 2,000 hours of supervised clinical practice. Next up is the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam, which you must pass in order to obtain a state license and begin practicing. Physician assistants then need to complete recertification training every two years along with a recertification exam every six to 10 years.
Physician assistant vs. nurse practitioner salary
The salaries of physician assistants and nurse practitioners are quite similar. Physician assistants can expect to earn around $121,530 per year, while a nurse practitioner's salary checks in around $123,780 per year.
Choosing between a career as a nurse practitioner or a physician assistant may not be an easy one, as there's plenty of overlap between the two positions. Those who wish to work more independently and with a more holistic approach may be better suited to a career as a nurse practitioner, while those looking to practice under the tutelage of licensed physicians and with a greater focus on a medical model may find a career as a physician assistant to be a better choice. Still can't decide? Create a profile so employers can find you, and go from there.
More tips for nurse practitioners and physician assistants
- Ready to become a physician assistant? Learn how to do it.
- Work without borders: Why a job in health care is easy to get in a foreign country.
- Learn why a nurse practitioner is one of the most rewarding jobs.
- What you don't learn in med school: The soft skills you need to work in medicine.
- Stress is part of the job for a healthcare worker. Learn how to cope.