Nurse Practitioner Vs. Physician Assistant: What's the Difference?

Oct 20, 2021

The difference between a nurse practitioner (NP) and a physician assistant (PA) primarily boils down to education and how they practice medicine. Compare these and other differences between PA and NP professionals here.

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What is the Difference Between a PA and NP?

While nurse practitioners (NPs) and physician assistants (PAs) are both medical professionals, the biggest difference between a PA and NP is how they practice medicine. Although some rules and regulations vary by state, nurse practitioners can generally act as primary healthcare providers. They can usually work more independently while making more clinical decisions than a physician assistant who must practice medicine as a part of a medical team. While nurse practitioners often consult with other physicians and doctors, physician assistants must be under the physician or surgeon's direct supervision.

Both careers may perform similar job duties, but nurse practitioners often specialize in a particular area of medicine, such as women's health, pediatrics, psychiatry, or gerontology. At the same time, physician assistants receive training in various areas through clinical rotations. Below we explore other differences in nurse practitioners' education requirements and physician assistants' and differences in salary and job outlook.

Another way to look at the difference between a nurse practitioner vs. PA is that a nurse practitioner adheres to a patient-centered model. In contrast, a physician assistant adheres to a disease-centered model.

When considering a PA vs. nurse, a physician's assistant requires a much longer training and experience program than a nurse. Becoming a nurse is part of the training to become a nurse practitioner. Nurses are highly valued in the medical profession. When deciding on a nurse or PA, one should determine which one would best treat their health level.

As a patient trying to determine if they should seek a nurse practitioner or PA, one should consider the different specialty levels outlined in the following descriptions.

Questions concerning PA vs. NP and the details of the differences appear below.

What is a PA?

The answer to what is a PA (or what is a physician assistant) is that a physician assistant has responsibilities that include covering a range of medical needs from diagnosing illnesses to treating injuries. A physician assistant's day to day duties include:

  • Creating treatment plans
  • Issuing prescriptions
  • Ordering and interpreting labs and imaging

A physician assistant has a scope of practice governed by an agreement between the PA and their supervising physician.

The physician assistant receives an education that concentrates on the medical model. The medical model emphasizes disease pathology and curing the problem. The medical model basically focuses on breaking the patient's anatomy down to systems, and treatment is prescribed based on the system with non-optimal conditions.

Physician assistants typically work as part of a team.

What is an NP?

An NP is a nurse practitioner. On occasion, one asks, is a nurse practitioner above a physician assistant? The answer is no. The two positions follow different models of practice. As indicated, a PA follows the medical model. An NP follows the nursing model. The nursing model takes a holistic approach, one that surrounds the whole well being of the patient. The nursing model concentrates on a patient's overall health. Their concentration is on the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs of the patient. Addressing physical symptoms is still an essential part of nursing model care.

A nurse practitioner can be more independent. They might have their own practice or have a supervisory or collaborative agreement with another practice. Some NPs consult.

Physician Assistant vs. Nurse Practitioner Education

Nurse Practitioner Education

Nurse practitioners need to receive a nursing degree from an accredited bachelor's or associate's program. A bachelor's degree is a prerequisite for graduate school. All nurse practitioners must earn a master's degree in nursing (MSN) or higher to work as an advanced practice nurse.

Typical requirements for an invitation to interview for graduate school to become a nurse practitioner include:

  • Resume
  • Personal statements
  • Transcripts
  • Proof of RN credentials
  • Records of clinical experience
  • GRE scores
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Application fees

A nurse practitioner can expect to complete an additional 600 hours of clinical experience. The clinical experiences are sufficiently varied to match the particular focus preferred. The most common focus for an NP is a family practice, but other specialties like neonatal, nurse midwifery, or women's health may be chosen.

Physician Assistant Education

To become a physician assistant, one must complete a PA program accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant.

To be considered for a PA program, applicants must provide:

  • Documentation of experience
  • Documentation of community service
  • Transcripts
  • Resume
  • Records of clinical hours
  • GRE scores
  • Letters of reference
  • Application fees
  • Probable background check

A physician assistant can expect 2,000 hours of clinical experience with rotations to multiple specialties.

Physician assistants are trained in more of a generalist approach. As many as 25% of physician assistants have determined to have a particular surgical specialty, including pre-operative to post-operative stages.


Since these are two different professions, each career has its own licensing exam. Both nurse practitioners and physician assistants must meet state requirements in the state they plan to practice in. Still, nurse practitioners must pass a national certification exam that varies by state and specialty area. Many states conform to the National Council of State Boards of Nursing APRN Consensus Model. Physician assistants must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) and have an agreement with a supervising physician.

Physician Assistant vs. Nurse Practitioner Job Duties

As mentioned, nurse practitioners and physician assistants perform many of the same job duties to provide quality healthcare for their patients. While some duties may vary based on state laws, most nurse practitioners and physician assistants perform similar tasks. Similarities include:

  • Recording medical histories
  • Prescribing medications
  • Ordering lab tests
  • Diagnosing injuries and illnesses
  • Using medical equipment
  • Performing medical exams
  • Researching treatments
  • Educating patients and their families

As indicated in the first paragraph above in detail, the main difference between a physician assistant and a nurse practitioner is the PA concentrates on the medical model whereas the NP concentrates on the nursing model; both are defined above.

Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician Assistant Salary & Job Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2019 median salary for a nurse practitioner is $115,800. The job outlook for 2019 to 2029 is 45% growth.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2019 median salary for a physician assistant is $112,260. The job outlook for 2019 to 2029 is 31% growth.

The differences in growth between a nurse practitioner and a physician assistant is due to two factors:

  • Increased demand for health care services and the aging of the massive baby boomer population.
  • Shortages in physicians.

One could also add that a nurse practitioner has more flexibility due to their background, experience, and licensing requirements. A physician assistant needs an agreement with their supervising physician covering their scope of practice.

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