Career Comparison: Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician Assistant

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Nurse and doctor discuss a medical report

Acquiring an advanced degree in health care can lead to a wide range of clinical occupations. Some of these careers, such as nurse practitioner and physician assistant, feature similar job descriptions. Yet, for each of these career paths, there are several differentiating duties and requirements.

What Is a Nurse Practitioner?

Nurse practitioners are advanced clinical professionals who coordinate the delivery of primary and specialty health care services. They spend much of their time administering diagnostic exams, evaluating patients, and creating treatment plans. But as they are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), nurse practitioners also fulfill leadership roles in their work environments. With that in mind, other health care professionals, such as physicians, may consult with nurse practitioners to help develop patient treatment strategies.

In most cases, nurse practitioners also specialize in a distinct discipline of nursing. There are many specializations available to nurse practitioners, including family medicine, pediatrics, and mental health. While some of the core responsibilities for nurse practitioners remain the same across disciplines, each requires a unique skill set and specific knowledge. To reach that level of expertise, a Master of Science in Nursing and advanced certification are necessary.

What Is a Physician Assistant?

Physician assistants, often referred to as PAs, provide clinical support to physicians, surgeons, and other health care professionals. Their job duties vary based on the patient demographic they are serving, but they play a key role in diagnosing patients’ injuries and illnesses. Physician assistants can perform certain medical treatments, but many of these treatments require the supervision of a physician or surgeon. Physicians may be too busy to properly educate or counsel their patients, so physician assistants must be prepared to provide answers to their patients’ health care questions.

Like NPs, PAs can also specialize in specific areas of clinical medicine, such as urgent care, primary care, and cardiology; however, rather than acquiring certifications and further education, PAs pursue their specializations by gaining experience in their desired fields. PAs can specialize in practically any established field of medicine they are interested in.

How Are Physician Assistants Similar to Nurse Practitioners?

After reviewing the descriptions of these two professions, it is easy to point out some functions that directly overlap. For instance, both nurse practitioners and physician assistants examine patients and perform diagnostic tests. Both are trained to interpret those diagnostic tests and use the results to inform their treatment strategies. Furthermore, NPs and PAs each have the authority to prescribe medications.

The two professions also contribute to health promotion activities. For example, they may help patients understand how to safely and effectively use their medications, and they may speak with groups of people about disease management and the importance of preventive care. Therefore, strong communication skills and cultural competence are beneficial in both career paths.

How Are Physician Assistants and Nurse Practitioners Different?

The most obvious difference between physician assistants and nurse practitioners is the scope of practice. Many states allow nurse practitioners to practice independently, and other states require only minor supervision by a licensed physician. The level of supervision a PA must have varies greatly from state to state, but physician assistants cannot run their own independent practices in any state. In some instances, they can work almost independently, consulting with their supervising physicians only when necessary; however, this doesn’t rival the level of autonomy available to some nurse practitioners.

Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician Assistant: Career Requirements

Other key differences between physician assistants and nurse practitioners relate to education and work experience. The first step to qualifying for both jobs is getting an undergraduate degree. A Bachelor of Science in Nursing is ideal for those who aspire to become nurse practitioners. Future PAs can qualify for applicable advanced degrees if they hold an undergraduate degree in nursing or other health care-related discipline. Before applying for a graduate program, however, aspiring NPs and PAs typically need to gain some hands-on clinical experience.

Once these professionals have spent at least a year caring directly for patients, they should be ready to apply for their respective advanced degree programs. PAs will look to earn a Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies, and prospective nurse practitioners will need to earn a Master of Science in Nursing. Both degree programs require approximately two years of full-time study. After graduation, aspiring PAs must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) from the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). Future NPs must find the professional organizations that license nurse practitioners in their desired specializations and complete the prescribed certification process. The process typically involves a combination of passing a test and completing a certain number of work hours in addition to earning a Master of Science in Nursing.

Nurse practitioner vs. PA is a tough career decision to make because of the many similarities between the two jobs. The median salaries for the two occupations are also quite similar, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nurse practitioners earned a median salary of $103,880 in 2017, while the median for PAs was $104,860. The projected job growth for the two occupations is comparable: a 36 percent increase in the number of NP jobs from 2016 to 2026 and a 37 percent increase in the number of PA jobs across the same period. Still, there is one major upside for those who choose to follow the nurse practitioner path: the combination of earning a Master of Science in Nursing and getting licensed gives aspiring health care providers the option to practice independently in a field they are passionate about.

Learn More:

For students who aspire to an advanced career in nursing, Ohio University’s online MSN program helps them gain the skills and experience necessary to take their nursing careers to the next level. Learn more about Ohio University’s online Master of Science in Nursing.


Recommended Reading:

What Can I Do with a Master’s in Nursing?

How Increasing Demand for Nurse Practitioners (NPs) Is Affecting Their Market Value

What Is Gerontology?



Bureau of Labor Statistics, NPs

Bureau of Labor Statistics, PAs

American Academy of Physician Assistants

Washington Post