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

Nurse practitioners (NPs) and physician assistants (PAs) are healthcare workers who typically work under the supervision of licensed physicians. However, different specialties are available within these professions, and the roles of NPs and PAs are governed by varying state laws.

The Difference Between an NP and a PA

Aspiring NPs and PAs both complete many years of postsecondary schooling, often resulting in a master's degree. However, these professionals serve different roles within their places of work, which might include hospitals, doctors' offices or other healthcare facilities.

Nurse Practitioner Overview

Nurse practitioners are registered nurses who have gone on to earn a master's or doctorate degree in a specialty area of nursing, such as adult practice, family practice, pediatrics or women's health. The duties that nurse practitioners can perform vary by state, but generally include diagnosing and treating acute and chronic conditions, prescribing medication, ordering and interpreting x-rays and other diagnostic procedures, counseling patients and managing patients' overall care. State regulations also determine whether an NP can work independently or if he or she must collaborate with a licensed physician.

Nurse practitioners must be licensed in the state where they practice. Additionally, there are numerous voluntary NP certifications available through organizations such as the American Nurses Credentialing Center and the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. In May 2014, the median annual salary for nurse practitioners was $95,350, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor of Statistics (BLS).

Physician Assistant Overview

Physician assistants practice medicine directly under a supervising physician. They typically examine, diagnose and treat patients, in addition to ordering x-rays and lab tests and interpreting their results. PAs also might prescribe medications, conduct therapy and stitch, splint or cast minor injuries.

On the orders of a physician, PAs sometimes check on homebound patients, as well as those in hospitals and nursing homes. They can work in a number of specialties, including internal medicine, family medicine, pediatrics or surgery. The exact duties of physician assistants are dictated by supervising physicians, as well as state law.

The BLS reported that there were about 200 accredited programs for prospective physician assistants as of 2014. For acceptance to most PA programs, applicants must have an undergraduate degree and some sort of healthcare experience. Coursework for these programs, which typically last two years, might cover gynecology, geriatrics, emergency medicine, family medicine and medical ethics, among other topics.

PAs must earn state licensure, and though requirements vary, all states mandate passage of the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam. Median annual earnings for physician assistants were $95,820 in May 2014, based on BLS figures.

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