Differences Between a Physician Assistant and a Nurse Practitioner

Both physician assistants and nurse practitioners provide health care, although the restrictions and requirements in each field vary. If you enjoy caring for others and are willing to commit to formal education, then a career in either field might be right for you. Schools offering Allied Health degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Physician Assistant vs. Nurse Practitioner Overview

A physician assistant (PA) provides medical care under the supervision of a physician. If you are a PA, you will be able to do many of the duties of a physician, such as diagnosing and treating patients, ordering tests and reading x-rays. You may also be able to prescribe some medications. PAs must usually consult with physicians due to state legal regulations.

Nurse practitioners, on the other hand, usually work independently of a physician and offer a combination of nursing and health care services. Nurse practitioners may have similar duties as a PA, but in all states, nurse practitioners can prescribe medication. It is typical for a nurse practitioner to specialize in one area of medicine.

Important Facts About Physician Assistants and Nurse Practitioners

Physician AssistantsNurse Practitioners
Job Outlook (2016-2026)37% growth31% growth
Key SkillsEmotional stability, communicationInterpersonal skills, leadership
Similar OccupationsParamedic, physician/surgeonRegistered nurse, physical therapist
Work EnvironmentPhysically demanding; standing for long periodsPhysically demanding; precautions must be taken to avoid risk of infection or injury

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Education Requirements

Although a physician assistant and a nurse practitioner sometimes perform similar job duties, they have separate education and certification requirements. The laws governing PAs and nurse practitioners are set at the state level and dictate the training requirements and job duties of each profession.

Physician Assistant

To work as a PA in any state, you must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE), which is administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA). To qualify to take this exam, you must graduate from an accredited degree program in physician or surgical assisting. Some states may have additional requirements that must be met to qualify for state licensing.

Nurse Practitioner

A nurse practitioner is an advanced practice nurse who is required, as of 2015, to hold a doctoral degree. To enter a doctoral degree program, you will need to have earned at least a bachelor's degree in nursing and hold a nursing license. After earning your advanced degree, state law may require you to become certified through a national certifying organization, such as the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP), to be eligible to practice as a nurse practitioner.

Salary Comparison

In May 2018, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that physician assistants earned an average annual salary of $108,430. PAs in the 10th-90th percentile range made annual salaries of between $69,120-$151,850, respectively (www.bls.gov). In the same year, the BLS reported that the average annual salary for nurse practitioners was $110,030. NPs in the 10th-90th percentile range made salaries of between $78,300 and $150,320 a year.

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