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

Nov 27, 2019

The difference between a nurse practitioner and a physician's assistant 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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  • 0:01 Difference Between an…
  • 0:41 Nurse Practitioner Overview
  • 1:44 Physician Assistant Overview

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What is the Difference Between a Nurse Practitioner and a Physician's Assistant?

While nurse practitioners and physician's assistants are both medical professionals, the biggest difference between these two careers is how they practice medicine. Although some rules and regulations vary by state, nurse practitioners can generally act as primary healthcare providers and can usually work more independently while making clinical decisions in comparison to a physician's 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 direct supervision of a physician or surgeon.

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, while physician assistants receive training in various areas through clinical rotations. Below we explore other differences in the education requirements for nurse practitioners and physician assistants, as well as differences in salary and job outlook.

Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician Assistant Education

Nurse practitioners and physician assistants both need at least a master's degree and many hours of clinical training, but the kind of degree differs for each profession. There are many nurse practitioner schools available that offer Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and/or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree programs. Applicants to these graduate programs in nursing need to already hold a registered nurse (RN) license and most MSN programs require around 500 clinical hours, while DNP programs require around 1,000 clinical hours.

Physician assistant degree programs are available at the undergraduate and graduate levels, but to practice in the field, these professionals must have a master's degree from a physician's assistant program. Applicants generally have a background in medicine, and physician's assistant programs generally require 2,000 clinical hours.


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, but nurse practitioners must pass a national certification exam that varies by state and specialty area. Physician assistants must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) and have an agreement with a supervising physician.

Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician Assistant Salary

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the average annual salary for a nurse practitioner in 2018 was $110,030, while the average annual salary for a physician's assistant was $108,430. Offices of physicians had the highest rate of employment for both professions, where nurse practitioners made an average salary of $107,530, and physician assistants made an average of $108,180. Nurse practitioners made the highest average salary of $139,770 working in personal care services, while physician assistants made the highest average of $116,780 working at outpatient care centers.

Job Outlook Difference Between PA and NP

The BLS reported that physician assistants had a job outlook of 31% from 2018 to 2028, while nurse practitioners had a job outlook of 28% in the same period. Although the outlook is greater for physician assistants, both outlooks are much faster than the national average and may be attributed to the growing population and the need for healthcare services.

Similarities in Job Duties

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

  • 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
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