Nurse Practitioner vs Physician Assistant: What’s the Difference?

When many people think of health and medicine, their minds automatically jump to doctors, and maybe even nurses. However, there are many different career opportunities available in health care. It is not necessary to go to medical school, either, to help diagnose and treat diseases. Some health care professions allow you to work closely with patients, and provide help and medical advice without becoming a doctor. Two of these professions are nurse practitioner and physician assistant.

At first glance, it may seem as though a nurse practitioner and a physician assistant are basically the same thing. However, this is not the case. While both careers can allow you to work closely with patients, and both can include diagnosis and some treatment of disease, there are some differences between the duties and qualifications required by each profession. You can find out more about being a nurse practitioner, and being a physician assistant, and then decide which career choice might work best for you.

Nurse Practitioner

As you might imagine, a nurse practitioner must be a registered nurse. Indeed, a nurse practitioner is a registered nurse — but one with advanced academic achievement and additional experience in medical settings. In most cases, in order to be a nurse practitioner, it is necessary to have a master’s degree. This degree can be in nursing, or in some other field that is obviously related to health care. In addition to having an advanced degree, a nurse practitioner should also have additional clinical experience. This clinical experience offers a basis of hands-on knowledge related to the treatment of disease, and also of diagnosis.

Because of the extra education and experience that a nurse practitioner has, they are able to diagnose and manage most illnesses that appear commonly. Nurse practitioners can provide general family health care in most cases. There are many specialty areas associated with nurse practitioners, including:

  • Acute Care
  • Adult Health
  • Emergency Medicine
  • Family Nursing
  • Geriatric Medicine
  • Home Health Nursing
  • Neonatal Care
  • Occupational Health
  • Oncology
  • Pediatrics
  • Psychiatric & Mental Health
  • Public Health
  • Women’s Health

How can I become a nurse practitioner?

In order to work as a nurse practitioner, you’ll need an advanced degree. A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) is a necessary prerequisite and a resume must-have for prospective hires. More information on these degree programs is outlined below:

  • DNP: For registered nurses interested in a terminal degree in nursing practice that offers an alternative to research-focused doctoral programs. Program length is typically 3-4 years.
  • MSN: For registered nurses (RN) interested in advanced nursing practice in a specialized area. Program length is typically 2-3 years.
  • MSN Bridge Programs: For associate degree and diploma nurses with a bachelor’s degree in another discipline to obtain an MSN. Program length is typically ~18 months.

Once you decide what degree best fits your educational and professional goals, your next step is to research schools. You should make sure that the school you choose is both accredited and offers the program you’re interested in. The following schools are popular options:

SchoolPrograms
Kaplan University
Accreditation
  • HLC
  • NCA
South University
Accreditation
  • SACSCOC
Grand Canyon University
Accreditation
  • HLC
Walden University
Accreditation
  • HLC

Click here to see more nurse practitioner degrees.

Primary Job Duties

Nurse practitioners can diagnose diseases, including some chronic diseases, and develop treatment plans for them. Nurse practitioners are authorized to write prescriptions and order tests, and most have hospital privileges as well. Most nurse practitioners focus on disease prevention and health maintenance, as well as patient education. Nurse practitioners can have their own practices, as well as work in cooperation with others in the health care profession.

  • Taking the patient’s history, performing physical exams, and ordering laboratory tests and procedures
  • Diagnosing, treating, and managing diseases
  • Prescribing medication, in varying degrees
  • Coordinating referrals
  • Performing certain procedures and minor surgeries, such as bone marrow biopsy or lumbar puncture
  • Providing patient education and counseling to support healthy lifestyle behaviors
  • Difference: Exercises autonomy and initiative in clinical decision-making

According to the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners, those in this field work close to 36 hours a week, and earn a median salary of around $73,620 on an annual basis. You can see where having a specialty might help, and how you can make a good living — while helping people — as a nurse practitioner.

Physician Assistant

Unlike a nurse practitioner, who can work alone in a practice, a physician assistant performs their duties under the supervision of a doctor. Like a nurse practitioner, though, a physician assistant can also diagnose disease and write prescriptions. However, everything that a physician assistant does is technically at the direction of a licensed physician (M.D. or D.O.). The nurse practitioner has more authority on his or her own, but a physician assistant can also have a large degree of autonomy, depending on his or her competence, and the willingness of the doctor to delegate. Physician assistants also have specialties. Some of the specializations that can be chosen by a physician assistant include:

  • General Internal Medicine
  • Orthopedics
  • Geriatrics
  • Family Medicine
  • Pediatrics
  • Emergency Medicine
  • General Surgery
  • Thoracic Surgery

Of course, any specialties carried out must be under the supervision of a licensed physician, so physician assistants generally just assist during surgeries. Some physician assistants join themselves to doctors in their specialties of interest, and work in those practices. Physician assistants can also work at hospitals, under proper supervision.

Primary Job Duties

Physician assistants can engage in diagnosis of common illnesses, and also come up with treatment plans. They can prescribe medication as well. There are some limits to the types of drugs a physician assistant can prescribe, however. They are not allowed, in most cases, to prescribe narcotics, and there may be some other limitations, which can vary on a state by state basis (since a physician assistant is licensed by the state). Physician assistants are also able to order tests, and interpret the results of x-rays and laboratory tests.

  • Tracking patients’ medical histories and symptoms
  • Ordering laboratory tests and analyzing results with physicians
  • Providing a limited number of prescriptions
  • Advising patients on preventive health care
  • Treating minor injuries or sicknesses
  • Referring patients to specialists as required
  • Difference: Unlike NPs, PAs must practice medicine under the direct supervision of physicians and surgeons.

According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median hourly wage for a physician assistant is approximately $40-$86. It can be a good job, with opportunity to provide patients with quality health care, and educate them about better health practices. There is specific training that you have to go through to become a physician assistant, though. But no advanced degree is necessary. You have to be okay with working under someone’s supervision, though, in order to succeed as a physician assistant, since you do not have the ability to set up your own practice.

Which Should You Choose?

As with any career decision, whether you decide to be a nurse practitioner or a physician assistant depends on your goals, and what you want to accomplish. If you are a registered nurse, you can take either path and see an increase in responsibility and ability to care for patients. If you already have an advanced degree in nursing, though, and you like to have complete autonomy and are interested in having your own practice, then the nurse practitioner route might be best for you. If you are more interested in getting started in a rewarding career quickly, a physician assistant career track might be the way to go.

There are pros and cons to each career, and it is up to you to study out the options, and decide what would work best in your circumstance. Either way, you are able to work with patients on a personal level, and help them live healthier lives. Becoming a nurse practitioner or physician assistant opens many doors and provides numerous career opportunities. Visit our list of accredited schools and degrees to find a MSN program that meets your needs, and begin your career training today.

Looking for a nurse practitioner degree?