Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician Assistant: Career Comparison

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A nurse practitioner stands with another nurse in a medical facility.

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 professional paths, there are several differentiating duties and requirements.

Individuals who are interested in pursuing advanced roles in health should consider the differences between nurse practitioners and physician assistants, including their respective roles in the health care system, education requirements, salaries, and projected job growth.

What Is a Nurse Practitioner?

Nurse practitioners (NPs) 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. Since they are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), and have more responsibility, 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.

Specializing in a distinct discipline of nursing also helps define what a nurse practitioner is. In most cases, nurse practitioners also specialize in a defined nursing area of patient care. There are many specializations available to nurse practitioners, including family medicine, adult-gerontology, and mental health care. 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 (MSN) 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 populations they are serving, but they consistently 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?

When comparing nurse practitioners vs. physician assistants, it is easy to point out some functions of these two professions that directly overlap. For instance, they both 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 awareness are beneficial in both career paths.

Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician Assistant: Key Differences

While physician assistant vs. nurse practitioner similarities may be obvious, NPs and PAs differ significantly when taking into account their scope of practice, educational path, and career requirements.

Scope of Practice

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 operate 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.

Education Requirements

Other key differences between physician assistants and nurse practitioners relate to education and work experience. The first step to qualify for both jobs is to earn an undergraduate degree. A Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) 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, while prospective nurse practitioners will need to earn a Master of Science in Nursing. Both degree programs require approximately two years of full-time study.

Certification Requirements

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.

Salary and Job Outlook

Nurse practitioner vs. physician assistant 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 (BLS). Nurse practitioners, as reported by the BLS, earned a median annual salary of $117,670 in 2020, while the median salary for PAs was $115,390.

The projected job growth for the two occupations is comparable: a 52% increase in the number of NP jobs from 2020 to 2030, and a 31% increase in the number of PA jobs across the same period. Still, there is one major upside for those who choose the nurse practitioner path: the combination of earning an MSN and becoming licensed gives these aspiring health care providers the option to practice independently in a field they are passionate about. Having that type of autonomy and freedom is a luxury that not everyone in the medical profession has.

Pursue Your MSN Degree

Both nurse practitioners and physician assistants play important roles in the medical field; however, NPs have the distinct advantage of higher earning potential, greater job growth, and the ability to practice independently in a field of their choosing.

For students who aspire to an advanced career in nursing, Ohio University’s online MSN program offers the skills and practical experience to take their nursing careers to the next level. This comprehensive program is designed for active registered nurses (RNs) who have already earned their BSN and wish to further their education via flexible and convenient online coursework.

The Ohio University MSN program features a robust core curriculum that integrates advanced nursing theory and evidence-based nursing practice through case-driven studies. Students are able to learn remotely with 100% online coursework. MSN students are also able to choose among five specializations, enabling them to pursue a degree that appeals to their interests.

Take the first step toward pursuing your professional goals today with Ohio University.

Recommended Readings

BSN vs. MSN: The Benefits of a Postgraduate Nursing Education

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

What Can You Do With an MSN?


American Academy of Physician Assistants, What is a PA?

American Association of Nurse Practitioners, What’s a Nurse Practitioner (NP)?

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Physician Assistants