Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician Assistant

While nurse practitioner (NP) and physician assistant (PA) professions both offer autonomy, responsibility and competitive salaries, there are clear differences between PA vs. NP careers. Here, we’ll examine the NP vs. PA career path to better understand the difference between PA and NP roles, specifically educational requirements, scope of practice and career outlook.

Education

NP vs. PA education requirements share similarities including:

  • Bachelor’s degree (a pre-requisite education requirement)
  • Master’s degree (a pre-requisite education requirement)
  • Extensive classroom experience and clinical hours

After graduating from an NP or PA program, students must be certified to practice. PAs are certified through the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants and must pass a national certification exam. NPs obtain certification in a specific patient population focus, such as the following:

  • Acute care
  • Family health
  • Gerontology
  • Neonatal
  • Pediatric
  • Women's health
  • Midwifery

NPs and PAs may also obtain additional certifications and sub-specialize in a variety of areas such as palliative care, dermatology, cardiology, and obesity medicine.

Nurse Practitioner Education Requirements

A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is the minimum requirement to become a nurse practitioner. In addition, NPs must obtain advanced clinical training beyond the initial educational foundation required to become a registered nurse, according to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP). This advanced education provides the specialized knowledge and advanced competencies needed to practice in a variety of settings, including primary care, acute care and long-term care. NPs specialize in caring for certain populations of patients, and educational programs are offered within a nursing model of care that embraces a holistic and patient-centered approach with an emphasis on the health and well-being of the whole person.

Physician Assistant Education Requirements

Physician assistants typically obtain a Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies by completing a three-year graduate program that has been accredited through the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant. PA education is built around a medical model of care, which focuses primarily on disease pathology. This medical model influences the types of specializations available and is why many PAs specialize in a particular area of medicine rather than working with specific patient populations.

NP vs. PA Scope of Practice

There are similarities and differences when it comes to the scope of practice for nurse practitioners and physician assistants. Responsibilities for both are built upon a foundation of advanced education and training, which enables greater autonomy in practice—typically within the context of a collaborative physician relationship. However, some state practice laws allow NPs to practice independently without adhering to such a requirement.

Nurse Practitioner Responsibilities

Although practice laws vary from state to state, nurse practitioner scope of practice includes the diagnosis and treatment of various illnesses and injuries within the specialty populations for which they have been certified. With a holistic approach that focuses on promoting health, preventing disease and education, NPs provide a variety of health care services:  

  • Ordering, performing and interpreting diagnostic tests
  • Diagnosing and treating acute and chronic conditions
  • Prescribing medications and other treatments
  • Counseling regarding various health needs
  • Educating patients about preventing disease and adopting healthier lifestyles

Physician Assistant Responsibilities

The physician assistant scope of practice is governed by the practice laws of each state. In most states, they are required to have a form of collaborative agreement with a physician, yet they still practice with a great deal of autonomy on a day-to-day basis. Responsibilities typically include the following:

  • Ordering, performing and interpreting diagnostic tests
  • Diagnosing and treating acute and chronic conditions
  • Prescribing medications and other treatments
  • Diagnosing and treating illnesses and injuries
  • Performing other services within their scope of training and legal authority that are normally conducted by physicians

Career Opportunities

There are numerous career opportunities for NPs and PAs. To decide which would be the best fit, you may want to look at NP vs. PA salary and NP vs. PA job outlook. Once foundational factors have been considered—such as the required education and certification, specializations that are available, the scope of practice and model of care that is used—most people would like to learn more about the difference between physician assistant vs. nurse practitioner salary. According to 2017 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for physician assistants during that period was $104,860—with the top 10 percent making more than $146,260. For the same period, the BLS reports the median annual wage for nurse practitioners as $103,880—with the highest-paid 10 percent of NPs earning more than $145,630.

Family Nurse Practitioner

Individuals interested in an NP career path may be exploring specialization areas such as an FNP path. Family Nurse Practitioners (FNPs) deliver primary care to infants, children, adolescents and adults throughout their lives within the scope of practice described previously.

Learn more about how you can pursue a career as a Family Nurse Practitioner by visiting Nursing@USC, the online Master of Science in Nursing from USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work Department of Nursing.

Nursing@USC emphasizes health care grounded in an understanding of the physical, environmental and social factors that influence patient well-being. Nursing@USC trains nurse practitioners to provide integrative care alongside other professionals, such as physicians, pharmacists, social workers and case managers. Classes for the FNP program are held online, with clinical placements in or near your own community.

Nurse Practitioner Job Outlook

The BLS projects robust job growth for nurse practitioners—as much as 36 percent from 2016 to 2026, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. Expected growth is due to an increased demand for health care services secondary to a growing focus on preventive care and the aging of the massive baby boomer population. Since NPs can perform many of the same services as physicians—a profession with a projected shortage in the years ahead—they will help to fill the growing need for health care providers. Learn more about careers for nurse practitioners.

Physician Assistant Job Outlook

Many of the same dynamics contribute to BLS projections for physician assistants in the same period—with a nearly identical projected job growth of 37 percent for PAs in the years leading up to 2026.

Citation for this content: Nursing@USC, the online FNP program from the University of Southern California