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Nurse Practitioners and Physician Assistants: What’s The Difference?

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If you were to ask yourself, “What’s the most important position in the American healthcare system?”, you’d probably be hard-pressed to pick just one. All medical professionals keep this complex system running. Without them, the system would fall apart. Nurse practitioners and physician assistants are just two positions that play essential roles in the healthcare field. Both types of healthcare providers help patients with their needs, and their duties and goals often overlap; however, just because these roles overlap doesn’t mean they do the same thing. 

Suppose you’re a student about to embark on a healthcare career. You may be wondering about the pros and cons of becoming a nurse practitioner or a physician assistant. We’ll explain the differences between nurse practitioners and physician assistants and we’ll also explore their scope of practice, qualifications and salaries so you can know what each position entails.

What is a nurse practitioner?

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A nurse practitioner (NP) is a registered nurse who gives comprehensive healthcare assistance to patients of all ages. As a nurse practitioner, you’ll focus on treating and diagnosing illnesses and assisting with preventative care. 

Additionally, you’ll be working under the supervision of a physician; however, recent statewide changes to the healthcare system allow nurse practitioners to make patient care decisions without the direct input of the physician. So make sure to keep yourself informed about your state’s laws.  

To become a nurse practitioner, you must obtain a nursing degree by completing a university nursing program at either the bachelor’s- or associate’s-degree level. Once obtained, your primary responsibilities will include: 

  • General patient care
  • Diagnosing and treating illnesses/chronic conditions
  • Prescribing medication or other treatment plans 
  • Counseling patients about their healthcare needs or treatment plan
  • Informing patients about preventive care measures
  • Assisting with diagnostic tests, such as blood samples and X-rays

What is a physician’s assistant?

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In contrast, a physician assistant (PA) can offer services similar to a full physician within a primary care setting. Since PAs are licensed at the state level, the services they offer vary from state to state. To become a physician assistant to gain the proper accreditation you must complete an undergraduate program as well as a physician assistant program. 

Essential duties for a physician assistant include,

  • Assisting in surgery
  • Implementing disease control and mitigation practices
  • Diagnosing and treating illnesses and chronic conditions
  • Ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests and other lab results
  • Performing physical examinations for your patients
  • Performing any other duties allowed by state laws 

Both roles have a direct role in diagnosing and caring for patients. They both have the ability to prescribe medications and treatment plans, as well. However, a physician assistant has a broader scope of responsibilities than an NP. 

Key differences between nurse practitioner and physician assistant

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We’ve talked about the similarities between these roles but what about their differences? These differences fall into three categories: education, specialization and methodology.

Educational differences

Nurse practitioners need the following educational requirements:

  • A nursing degree from a reputable accredited program at the associate or bachelor’s level
  • Direct clinical experience to be considered for a graduate program (if you wish to continue advanced education to access higher-level positions)
  • General knowledge of math and science 

Physician assistants need the following educational requirements:

  • A bachelor’s degree, preferably in a medicine-related field (this is a requirement for entering a physician assistant’s program)
  • To be accepted into and successfully complete a PA program

Difference in specialties

The next big difference between these two roles are their specialities. For nurse practitioners, some of the typical specialties include:

  • Women’s health
  • Geriatric care
  • Mental health
  • Ongoing care for patients with chronic conditions
  • Emergency care

For physician assistants, some of their most common specialties within the medical field include:

  • Surgical assistance
  • Emergency medicine
  • Internal medicine 

Differences in methodology

Lastly, you’ll see differences in how nurse practitioners and physician assistants approach the idea of patient care. For nurses, care is holistic, emphasizing the patient’s physical, mental, emotional and—if applicable—religious needs. For physician assistants, the focus is on understanding disease pathology and using medicine to cure that problem. Maintaining optimal health is a PA’s top priority.

The job outlook for nurse practitioners vs. physician assistants

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Wondering about the job outlook for these positions? Here’s what you should know. 

For nurse practitioners:

  • Your job outlook is robust, with an industry that is set to grow. An aging population, the pandemic and general patient care mean the demand for nurse practitioners has never been higher. 
  • The average salary for this position is $117,670 per year, as per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For physician assistants:

  • Your industry outlook is also robust. Job prospects in this field are primed for growth, brought about by a shortage of doctors, an aging population and the effects of the pandemic. Demand for PAs is predicted to remain high.
  • Pay will vary depending on your specialization, but expect to make $115,390 per year on average.

If you’re looking for some additional workplace supplies, check out our selection of women’s scrubs or men’s scrubs. We even offer student scrub discounts and Jaanuu gift cards, so you can let your favorite healthcare professional choose what they love!

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