Physician Assistant / Nurse Practitioner

Nurse Practitioner vs Physician Assistant [Key Differences]

By February 6, 2020May 14th, 2020No Comments
Nurse Practitioner vs Physician Assistant

Both nurse practitioners (NPs) and physician assistants (PAs) throughout the United States are vital to the healthcare industry.

These professionals provide a wide variety of healthcare services for those seeking preventative care or dealing with illness. Both nurse practitioners and physician assistants are integral members of a collaborative healthcare team that work closely with physicians.

In recent years, there is a growing demand for patient care and a decrease in the number of doctors available to care for them. In many states, because of changes in regulations for nurse practitioners and physician assistants, they have obtained a higher level of independence and responsibility that comes with these changes.

The push for Licensed Independent Providers (LIPs) to work to the full scope of their license is due to the growing shortage of physicians and the higher number of patients requiring care for comorbid conditions. Healthcare is a dynamic field, and many medical professionals are obtaining more and more responsibilities than they ever imagined.

Nurse practitioners and physician assistants are not interchangeable. Each profession offers unique benefits to cover the disparities in patient care. With the highly-advanced education that these professionals receive, they are well-equipped for these intensive roles.

Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician Assistant Differences

To understand the roles of a nurse practitioner and physician assistant, it is best to do a PA vs. NP comparison.

Medical vs. Nursing Model

One of the key differences to understand with these professionals is to consider the way they approach patient care. Additionally, there are some key differences when it comes to the training and education they receive to prepare for their careers.

Nurse practitioners typically train according to the nursing model, while physician assistants receive an education that focuses on the medical model.

Nurse and Physician Assistant Schedules and Folders

Because of these differences, nurse practitioners typically adhere to a patient-centered model, while PAsl focus on a disease-centered model. Take a look at some key differences between the PA and NP models:

The Nursing Model

The nursing model takes a holistic approach to providing care and is based on the outcomes from that care. This type of comprehensive care focuses on the patient’s physical, as well as their mental,emotional, and spiritual needs. While addressing physical symptoms is an essential part of the care provided, NPs focus on promoting health instead reacting proactively of the patient’s symptoms and disease state.

The Medical Model

The medical model emphasizes disease pathology and “curing” the problem. This model approaches health care by examining the anatomy of the patient, including observation of the physiological systems included in the human body and how they function under optimal conditions when compared to the patient’s current status. The medical model breaks the patient into fundamental systems and treats each problem accordingly. This approach is much like the way you perform a review of systems when conducting a complete physical assessment.


This information regarding the medical and nursing models helps us distinguish the key differences between these two professions. Furthermore, both PAs and NPs choose from various specialty areas as they further their education. Many areas of specialty will overlap for both positions, but take a look at some key differences:

Nurse Practitioner Specialties

NPs concentrate on a certain population or focus on a specific disease state or stage in life during their nursing career.

Some more examples of nurse practitioner specialty areas include:

  • Primary care
  • Pediatrics
  • Geriatrics
  • Women’s health
  • Mental health

Once established in their specialty, they may specialize even further, which might include concentrations like:

  • Emergency Department
  • Trauma care
  • ICU
  • Pediatric endocrinology
  • Pediatric urology
  • Cardiac care
  • Pulmonary
  • Long-term care

Physician Assistants Specialties

On the other hand, rather than focusing on a specialty area like pediatrics and geriatrics, physician assistants tend to concentrate on a specific area of medicine.

Some examples include:

  • Emergency medicine
  • Internal medicine
  • Women’s Health
  • Surgery

While NPs have specific degrees/certifications, PAs can attend a growing list of post-graduate fellowship programs.

Keep reading for a more in-depth look at some of the job responsibilities for both nurse practitioners and physician assistants. This information will help you gain knowledge and clarity surrounding the NP vs. PA comparison.

NP vs. PA Job Responsibilities

Although some nurse practitioner duties may overlap those of a physician assistant, there are some key differences to consider.

Nurse Practitioner

Nurse practitioners emphasize preventive care and health promotion. Also, they treat illnesses and many medical conditions.

While many people believe that these medical professionals are under strict supervision by doctors, many nurse practitioners work independently without any direct physician oversight. The scope of an NP is defined by where they practice.

In fact, in many states, these professionals can have an independent nursing practice. Some states require a supervisory agreement, others have a collaborative agreement, and still others allow NPs to work completely independent and consult as needed.

Physician Assistant

The responsibilities of PAs range from diagnosing illnesses to treating injuries. Many of their day-to-day duties include thorough medical examinations, including creating treatment plans, issuing prescriptions, and ordering and interpreting labs and imaging. The scope of PA practice is governed by a written agreement between the PA and their supervising physician.

An hourglass anatomy books

Advanced Practice Setting

PAs and NPs often will work in the same setting, some of which include:

  • Hospitals
  • Nursing facilities
  • Clinics
  • Medical offices
  • Schools
  • Research

In these settings, NPs typically work without direct supervision from physicians, and can establish a clinic or combine forces with other nurse practitioners. Patients often enjoy this type of patient-centered approach.

PA and Nurse Practitioner Education

The nurse practitioner vs. PA comparison involves many differences when it comes to education and training. However, it is also important to note that medical and nursing schools vary in terms of the types of training programs they offer.

As you investigate programs, be sure that the schools you are considering have national accreditation and offer educational focuses in your specific area of interest.

Nurse Practitioner

If you have decided that you want to pursue a career as a nurse practitioner, then there are steps to understand in the process. To start, you will need to receive a nursing degree from an accredited associate or bachelor’s program.

To become an NP, many schools require a student first earn a bachelor’s degree as a prerequisite for graduate school.

There are however, more colleges and universities that are offering direct entry into accelerated and bridge programs. These programs allow students that have earned a degree (such as a BS or BA) in another field to apply previous coursework toward their requirements for program entry and graduation.

Others combine the necessary courses for your undergraduate, graduate, and NCLEX into a longer, far more intensive program. These programs are highly competitive and require a strong science and math background.

Many graduate programs may require that the entering students have some type of medical background, in addition to the experience that they will gain throughout their studies.

All nurse practitioners must obtain a master’s degree in nursing (MSN) or higher to work as an advanced practice nurse. To find a school that focuses on your aspirations, be sure to do your research.

No matter what you choose, plan to collect and organize the following for any nurse practitioner application:

If a nursing school is impressed with your qualifications, then they will invite you for an interview. Interviewers may ask standard questions or those relating to their personality characteristics, experience, and aspirations as an NP.

Physician Assistant

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

Many PA programs offer distinct areas of expertise and course offerings to target your ideal medical career.

To be eligible for a physician assistant program, you must first obtain a bachelor’s degree. While it is not a requirement that the student possesses a degree in a related field, it is encouraged by many programs.

Many programs expect the applicant to have some work experience in the medical field, but it is not a requirement.

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

An applicant may also be required to subject to a background check before acceptance into a PA program. If called in for an interview, a school representative will meet with you and review your qualifications to determine if you’re a good fit for their program.

Piggy bank coins and medical emergency bag

NP vs. PA Job Outlook

The job outlook for both NPs and PAs is looking very bright for the coming years. As the population ages, more people will require comprehensive healthcare. As the number of these patients steadily rises, the healthcare system demands more licensed independent providers to meet these needs.

However, it is important to note that the projected growth rate of PA positions is currently higher than that for nurse practitioners.

If you’re looking to jump right into practice, physician assistants finish school quicker than physicians or NPs without a nursing education. However, if you are already a Registered Nurse with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, you have a significant advantage when pursuing an Advanced Practice Nursing degree. Your wealth of knowledge and experience will serve your employers and patients alike!

From start to finish, a PA program takes approximately 27 months, while a NP program can be considerably shorter. To become an NP, it can take between 24-48 months depending on the program and commitment of time (part time vs. full time attendance).

For salary expectations, PAs typically make around $104,000, while nurse practitioners make about $103,000 on average. These salaries are almost three times the median salary for all other occupations.

However, it is crucial to note that the different specialties within these professions vary in terms of pay, so it is best to research your specialization to determine a more accurate salary expectation for your specific career.

With over 100,000 jobs available every year for both PAs and NPs, the opportunity is out there. Many NP and PA recruiters will seek out candidates to fill job vacancies. If you would like to control your destiny, there are many job postings accessible directly through health organizations.