nurse practitioner vs physician assistant

Career Comparison: Physician Assistant vs. Nurse Practitioner

Considering an advanced degree in healthcare? Find out the difference between a PA and an NP.

Over the past few decades the landscape of healthcare in the US has changed drastically, and this transformation will continue for the foreseeable future. With physician shortages commonplace and projected to reach between 42K and 121K by 2030, other medical practitioners have stepped in to meet the growing demand this gap in healthcare providers has created. Two types of advanced healthcare positions are the physician assistant and nurse practitioner.

Although both can be found within hospitals and clinics and both fill similar roles treating illnesses, educating patients, and prescribing medications, physician assistants and nurse practitioners should never be mistaken as interchangeable or synonymous professions. When comparing the role of physician assistant vs. nurse practitioner, the main differentiator lies in their practice constraints/framework.


What Does a Physician Assistant Do? What is a Physician Assistant Allowed to Do?

PAs must work under the supervision of physicians in the vast majority of US states. However, depending on the collaborative agreement they have with an MD—as well as the specific laws in their states—many PAs are able to work independently. They are allowed to prescribe medications in most states and have a separate regulatory board in several states.


What Does a Nurse Practitioner Do? What is a Nurse Practitioner Allowed to Do?

NPs generally work with physician oversight, however 22 states plus the District of Columbia allow NPs to work autonomously. This means they can orchestrate every facet of healthcare for their patients, from performing initial examinations to forming diagnoses, ordering laboratory tests, devising treatment plans, and prescribing medications.


The difference between PA and NP practice responsibilities is just a start, however. There are also slight variations in education programs, certifications, and licensing procedures. Read on for a full PA vs. NP breakdown below.


Physician Assistant (PA)

Information about what it takes to become a physician assistant


PAs attend a medical school/center of medicine and must obtain a minimum of a master’s degree to seek licensure. Unlike NPs, these healthcare professionals follow a disease-centered model that is focused on the biologic and pathologic components of health. Specializations include emergency medicine, orthopedics, and general surgery.


  • Number of PA jobs in US: 106,200 as of 2016
  • Expected job growth: 37% from 2016 to 2026
  • Certification: Must pass Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) through the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA)
  • Licensing: Following completion of degree program and passing of PANCE, PAs seek licensure through their state medical board, board of medical examiners, or similar agency
  • Average Physician Assistant Salary: $104,860


Nurse Practitioner (NP)

Information about what it takes to become a nurse practitioner


NPs attend nursing school and obtain either a master’s or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree to become licensed within a state, and most have at least ten years’ RN experience prior to making the move to NP. They follow a patient-centered model that is focused on disease prevention and health education. Specializations include geriatrics, mental health, family medicine, pediatrics, and women’s health.


  • Number of licensed NPs in US: 248,000 as of 2017
  • Expected job growth: 31% from 2016 to 2026
  • Certification: Pursued through American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) or American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP)
  • Licensing: Current RN license, graduate degree, and national certification through ANCC or AANP are required prior to seeking licensure through a state board of nursing or board of medical examiners
  • Average Nurse Practitioner Salary: $110,930


Becoming an advanced practice provider is one way to take your career to the next level. However, choosing to pursue PA vs. NP licensure may depend on the laws within your state as well as the demand for practitioners in your area. Research the requirements and practice constraints for each credential before committing to a change and determine which career path will enable you to help the most patients while also offering the professional stimulation and security you need.


by: Freddie Rohner, iHire
June 26, 2018

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