To the uninitiated, a physician’s assistant and nurse practitioner can seem like the exact same healthcare role. Physician assistants (PAs) and nurse practitioners (NPs) share a lot in common, so it’s easy to see why there’s confusion.
Both are advanced healthcare practitioners with similar duties. However, their training and certification differ significantly.
Physician assistants provide direct patient care to patients of all ages. They can diagnose and treat common conditions and illnesses.
Nurse practitioners also provide patient care in a variety of settings. They can work alone or alongside a doctor.
Before you can decide which option best fits your healthcare career goals, you’ll need to learn about their similarities and differences.
In this blog post, we will explore:
- What is a physician’s assistant?
- What is a nurse practitioner?
- How are these roles similar?
- How are these roles different?
- Where do physician’s assistants work?
- Where do nurse practitioners work?
- How do you become a physician’s assistant?
- How do you become a nurse practitioner?
- What are the salary and career outlooks for physician’s assistants?
- What are the salary and career outlooks for nurse practitioners?
What is a physician’s assistant?
A physician’s assistant (PA) is a licensed mid-level healthcare provider. PAs are integral members of a healthcare team at many clinical practices and hospitals across the U.S. In some instances, they serve as primary healthcare providers.
PAs can work in every specialty and healthcare setting. Duties depend on the healthcare setting where they work and their state of practice.
In your role as a PA, you can:
- Diagnose illnesses
- Develop treatment plans
- Manage treatment plans
- Prescribe medications
PAs work interdependently alongside physicians. You must accumulate thousands of hours of training to make you more versatile and knowledgeable in this healthcare career.
What is a nurse practitioner?
A nurse practitioner (NP) is an advanced practice registered nurse who can work independently of a physician in 27 states. In this healthcare role, you can diagnose and treat health conditions in your patients. You also can specialize in different areas, including pediatrics or women’s health.
Other key responsibilities of NPs include:
- Diagnosing and treating acute or chronic health conditions
- Educating patients about their conditions, medications, or treatment options
- Performing and interpreting diagnostic testing
- Prescribing medications, therapies, and other treatments
Nurse practitioners often can be found in urgent care clinics and other clinical settings.
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How are these roles similar?
The roles of physician assistants and nurse practitioners are similar in many ways. Both offer the same services as a physician. Whether you choose a healthcare career as a nurse practitioner or a physician assistant, you can expect a high level of patient interaction.
Some of the ways in which their healthcare roles align include:
- Education – As advanced practice positions, both PAs and NPs must earn a minimum of a master’s degree.
- Job duties – They diagnose and treat illnesses, prescribe medications, and provide disease management.
- Setting – PAs and NPs can work in clinics, doctor’s offices, and hospitals. Some nurse practitioners have their own practices.
- Specialization – Each healthcare role can specialize. However, PAs are educated in all aspects of medicine, whereas NPs typically choose a specialty.
How are these roles different?
These two roles differ primarily in the models they practice under. Physician assistants go to medical school and are trained in the medical model. Nurse practitioners attend nursing programs under the nursing model.
A medical model focuses on the disease or illness of the patient. As a physician assistant, it’s your job to treat specific conditions based on the biological and physiological dimensions of conditions and diseases.
A nursing model emphasizes the impact the diagnosis has on the whole patient. Nurse practitioners consider the human aspects that can change because of the diagnosis.
While the medical and nursing models differ, they work together to help address patient needs.
Another way PAs and NPs are different is that NPs can work and prescribe medications independently in select states across the U.S. Physician assistants must work under the supervision of a physician.
Where do physicians assistants work?
Physician assistants must practice under the guidance of a licensed physician. If you choose a career in this healthcare role, you can work in doctor’s offices, hospitals, outpatient clinics, and other healthcare settings.
In this healthcare role, you can expect to spend most of the day on your feet rotating between patients. Most PAs work full-time shifts that include nights, weekends, and holidays. You might also be on call depending on where you work.
Where do nurse practitioners work?
You have a little more freedom as to where you work as a nurse practitioner. NPs can be found in nearly every healthcare setting, including clinics, emergency rooms, hospitals, urgent care centers, and in private practice.
As a licensed, independent healthcare practitioner, you can practice autonomously or in coordination with other healthcare professionals in this role.
How do you become a physician’s assistant?
Becoming a physician’s assistant requires extensive education and clinical experience. There are four steps you can expect to take to complete your journey.
Step 1 – Earn a bachelor’s degree
You must earn a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. The American Academy of Physician Associates recommends science-based bachelor’s degree programs like biology or chemistry, which prepare you for your future PA career.
It takes four years to complete your bachelor’s degree if you attend the program full-time. Some PA students take an extra year to ensure they’ve met all prerequisite requirements for an advanced degree.
Step 2 – Gain healthcare experience
The next step to becoming a PA requires you to seek out employment that gives you healthcare or direct patient care experience. In a healthcare environment, you wouldn’t be working directly with patients, but still gaining valuable knowledge about the medical field.
All PA graduate programs require this kind of experience before you can apply. Some mandate 1,000 hours while others ask for up to 3,000 hours. You can find out your preferred PA graduate school program requirements on their websites or through the Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants (CASPA).
Step 3 – Apply to a graduate program
After you’ve gained the required healthcare experience, the next step is to apply for a PA graduate program. If you use CASPA to apply, you must include the following with your application:
- Letters of recommendation from professors, supervisors, and other professionals in the field.
- List of experience gained and in which area (healthcare or direct patient care).
- Personal statement about why you’ve chosen to become a PA.
- Undergraduate/postgraduate transcripts.
Step 4 – Graduate and pass the PANCE
Once you graduate from an accredited PA program, you must take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE). The PANCE contains 300 questions designed to test your knowledge. You have five hours to complete five, 60-question sections.
How do you become a nurse practitioner?
Becoming a nurse practitioner (NP) is just as involved. It requires an advanced level of nursing education and experience before you can start your new career. Here are the five steps you can expect.
Step 1 – Become a registered nurse
You need an RN license to start an NP program. You can earn yours by getting an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN). Most employers prefer RNs with bachelor’s degrees because they’ve had an advanced level of education.
No matter which option you choose, you must then pass the NCLEX-RN exam to become licensed.
Step 2 – Gain experience
You must gain hands-on experience in the field of nursing before you can apply to a graduate program. Working as an RN in any healthcare setting can fulfill this requirement.
Most NP programs ask candidates to work for a few years before applying. Others may allow you to gain your RN experience while attending graduate school.
Step 3 – Earn a graduate degree
If you decide to go for a DNP, most graduate programs require you to complete an MSN first because DNP programs build on knowledge gained in an MSN program.
There are some bridge programs to help speed up the process:
Step 4 – Obtain certifications
Every nurse practitioner must choose a specialty. Your specialty determines what type of certification exam you take. Family, geriatrics, and pediatric specialties are popular with many nurse practitioners.
Step 5 – Become licensed
After you obtain your preferred specialty certification, you must send in your results and graduate program transcripts to the state licensing board. Once the board has reviewed your information, they issue your NP license, and you can begin practicing.
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What are the salary and career outlooks for physician’s assistants?
In May 2022, the BLS reported that nurse practitioners make $123,780 per year. Here’s a breakdown of the nurse practitioner salaries by state. Also, the job outlook is very rose. The projected growth for nurse practitioners is expected to be 40% from 2021 to 2031.
What are the salary and career outlooks for nurse practitioners?
According to BLS, the average median salary for a PA is $123,780. The map below shows the breakdown of NP salaries by state.
A physician’s assistant is a clinician who diagnoses illnesses, develops and manages treatment plans, prescribes medications, and often serves as the patient’s primary healthcare provider.
A nurse practitioner is an advanced practice nurse who diagnoses and treats health conditions. In their role, they also work to help prevent diseases and provide health management.
Physician’s assistants make on average $121,530 per year. Nurse practitioners make on average $123,780 per year.
They are both mid-level positions. Nurse practitioners are able to work autonomously, while PA work under supervision of a doctor.
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- Medical Model. link.springer.com. Accessed August 30, 2022.
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- Nursing Resources: Nursing Models. researchguides.library.wisc.edu. Accessed August 30, 2022.
- Pathway to Becoming a Nurse Practitioner (NP). aanp.org. Accessed August 30, 2022.
- Physician Assistants. bls.gov. Accessed August 30, 2022.
- State Practice Environment. aanp.org. Accessed August 30, 2022.
- Welcome to CASPA. caspa.liaisoncas.com. Accessed August 30, 2022.
- What is a PA? aapa.org. Accessed August 30, 2022.