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

Discover the difference between a nurse practitioner and a physician assistant. Find out job duties and education requirements, along with salary information. View article »

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  • 0:41 Nurse Practitioner Overview
  • 1:44 Physician Assistant Overview

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Video Transcript

The Difference Between an NP and a PA

Career Nurse Practitioner Physician Assistant
Degree Master's degree Bachelor's and completion of PA program
Completion Time 2 years 2 years
Licensure State licensure required State licensure required
Duties -Diagnosis and treat patients
-Governed by each state
-Diagnosis and treat patients
-Governed by each state
Supervision Work independently in some states Work under a physician
Median Annual Salary (2015) $98,190 $98,180

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.

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.

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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 2015, the median annual salary for nurse practitioners was $98,190, 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 might also 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, and 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 $98,180 in May 2015, based on BLS figures.

The main differences between nurse practitioners and physician assistants are the job duties they are permitted to do by law and different educational requirements.

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