Difference Between Nurse Practitioner & Physician Assistant

Nurse practitioners and physician assistants may perform the same types of medical duties. This article probes the similarities and differences between these professions.

Comparing Nurse Practitioner to Physician Assistant

The work that nurse practitioners and physician assistants do is very similar, and the differences between these professionals are fairly subtle. They need a comparable amount of training and can expect to earn similar incomes, but there is a slightly higher demand for nurse practitioners. Nurse practitioners are more likely to work in hospitals than physician assistants, while a larger percentage of physician assistants work in doctors' offices.

Job Title Educational Requirements Median Salary* (2016) Job Outlook* (2014-2024)
Nurse Practitioner Master's Degree; License $100,910 35%
Physician Assistant Master's Degree; License $101,480 30%

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Responsibilities of Nurse Practitioner vs Physician Assistant

Nurse practitioners and physician assistants perform a lot of similar tasks. Their specific duties can vary from one state to the next, but in general they treat and diagnose patients. They may be responsible for determining what medications a patient should take or monitoring the success of a treatment plan. Some physician assistants also work with surgeons, and they may provide pre- and post-op patient care.

Nurse Practitioner

Nurse practitioners are highly trained nursing professionals who are required to earn a master's degree. Like all nurses, they must be licensed, and nurse practitioners are also required to obtain national certification in their specialty area. They use their medical skills to provide primary care to patients or specialized care in obstetrics, geriatric health or pediatrics, among other areas. Most nurse practitioners work in doctors' offices and hospitals. Those who work in hospitals can expect to work day, evening or overnight shifts. It's important that they are able to communicate clearly with patients to assess their needs as well as with other medical professionals to make sure they get the right care. They must also be thorough in their assessment of patients so that they correctly diagnose them.

Job responsibilities of a nurse practitioner include:

  • Discuss medical issues with patients
  • Examine patients
  • Determine what tests a patient needs
  • Prescribe medication
  • Refer patients to other medical professionals
  • Educate patients about their medical condition

Physician Assistant

Physician assistants must earn an undergraduate and master's degree and be licensed. They may work long hours and be scheduled to work evening shifts, overnight shifts, weekends and holidays, depending on where they're employed. The majority of physician assistants work in doctors' offices, while others work in hospitals or medical clinics. Depending on their specialty area, they may assist surgeons in hospitals or they may see patients with other medical issues, such as those in need of emergency or psychiatric care. Some states require physician assistants to be closely supervised by licensed medical doctors, while other states allow them more authority to treat patients independently.

Job responsibilities of a physician assistant include:

  • Attend appointments with patients
  • Discuss a patient's medical concerns
  • Review patient records
  • Determine if medical tests are needed
  • Identify the medical issue affecting a patient
  • Monitor a patient's progress and adjust treatment if necessary

Related Careers

If a career as a nurse practitioner sounds appealing, you may also be interested in working as an occupational therapist, where you will diagnose patients and develop treatment plans to help them regain motor function and/or independence after an injury or illness. Individuals who are thinking about working as a physician assistant may want to explore the option of becoming an oncologist who diagnoses and treats patients who have cancer.

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