April 1, 2024

Comparing Nurse Practitioners and Physician Assistants: Training, Roles, and Outlook

NPs vs. PAs: What's the Difference?

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Physician assistants (PA) and nurse practitioners (NP) are advanced medical professionals. There are many similarities between these two roles like diagnosing and treating illnesses and writing prescriptions. However, from education and working environment to career path and job outlook, these professions are different.

This article will discuss the similarities and differences between a nurse practitioner and a physician assistant. It’ll help you make the most informed decision to choose the field that’s right for you.

TL;DR: The Difference Between NPs and PAs

Both nurse practitioners and physician assistants are primary care providers. The PA programs train individuals based on a medical model that emphasizes general medicine practices like diagnosis and treatment procedures. Whereas, a nurse practitioner follows a nursing model to serve as the advanced practice registered nurse. They focus on nursing care and specialize in patient populations like women’s health and geriatric. It’s important to note that both PAs and NPs are mid-level medical professionals. They’re basically at the same level. However, NPs can work independently in many states that PAs can’t. So, it places nurse practitioners above physical assistants in terms of practice independence. Understanding the differences and similarities between the two professions will help you determine which profession is better for you.

Nurse Practitioners vs Physician Assistants Differences and Similarities Compared In Detail

The biggest difference between the two professions is the training and education they receive. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of nurse practitioners and physician assistants.


Both nurse practitioners and physician assistants need to enroll in a graduate/master’s level program after completing a bachelor’s degree. They also need to undergo clinical training to complete their degree.

NP (Nurse Practitioner)

First, you need to earn a BSN (Bachelors of Science in Nursing) or graduate degree that typically takes four years to complete. After that, you can earn your RN (Registered Nurse) license by passing the NCLEX-RN exam if you want to practice as an RN.

Then, you’ll need to earn your graduate degree with a role specialty like FNP (Family Nurse Practitioner). The advanced practice nursing degree can be either a DNP (Doctor of Nursing Practice) or MSN (Master of Science in Nursing). It’ll also involve clinical training under an instructor’s supervision.

In order to become a CNP (Certified Nurse Practitioner), you’ll need to pass the national certification exam through any of the following certification boards:

  • PNCB (Pediatric Nursing Certification Board)
  • ANCC (American Nurses Credentialing Center)
  • NCC (National Certification Corporation)
  • AACN (American Association of Critical-Care Nurses)
  • AANP-CP (American Academy of Nurse Practitioners)

Once you have the certificate, you’ll need to renew it after a specific period of time. The duration of recertification can vary depending on your board.  

Read More: How to Become a CRNA

PA (Physician Assistant)

If you want to become a physician assistant, you’ll need to complete your bachelor’s degree in any healthcare-related field. In addition, for most physician assistant programs PAs need to have some prior experience working in a healthcare environment like a surgical technician, respiratory technician, radiology, or paramedic work. 

After that, you can enroll in an accredited master’s degree program like Physician Assistant Studies and Master of Science. You can go through the PAEA (Physician Assistant Education Association) list of PA programs to find the one that suits you best. Other organizations such as AAPA and PA Foundation can also help you with professional development.

Once you have completed your graduation, you’ll need to take the PANCE (Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam). The exam is supervised by the NCCPA (National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants) and passing it will provide you with your state license. Just like a certified nurse practitioner, you’ll need to retake the certification exam after a certain amount of time.

Job Duties

A nurse practitioner can work in all types of healthcare settings and also possesses full practice authority in 24 different states across the nation. It means nurse practitioners can work independently with the supervision of physicians. That’s not the case with the Physician Assistants as they need to work under the direct supervision of physicians.

NP (Nurse Practitioner) Key Responsibilities

  • Examining patients and treating chronic conditions.
  • Helping patients in community clinics and hospitals as well as outpatient settings.
  • Interpreting as well as performing different diagnostic tests.
  • Guiding patients about disease prevention and a healthy lifestyle.
  • Supporting patients emotionally and helping them to understand their treatment plans.
  • Writing prescriptions and providing treatment.

PA (Physician Assistant) Key Responsibilities

  • Reading and understanding patient histories
  • Examining patients physically and treating diseases
  • Ordering and reading diagnostic and lab tests
  • Writing prescriptions to and helping patients understand their treatment plans
  • Working in emergency medicine and assisting in surgeries

Job Outlook

The number of patients with severe health problems and chronic diseases is on the rise. That’s why the demand for healthcare providers is also increasing. According to BLS (Bureau of Labor Statistics), the demand for nurse practitioners is expected to grow by 45% from 2020 to 2030.

On the other hand, BLS also predicts a 31% growth from 2020 to 2030 in the demand for physician assistants. These stats show that people planning to choose any of these professions will have a bright future.

Read More: How To Become a CRNA (2022)

What Pays Better Nurse Practitioner or Physician Assistant?

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics states that the average annual salary of nurse practitioners is $120,680. It is lower than nurse anesthetists but higher than nurse-midwives. The average median salary of all these professions collectively is $123,780 or $59.51 per hour.

Whereas the BLS reports that the average physician assistant salary in the US is $121,530 or $58.43 per hour. It means that physician assistants get paid slightly more than nurse practitioners.

Which Position Is Higher Physician Assistant or Nurse Practitioner?

Nurse practitioners and physician assistants have similar responsibilities, or scopes of practice, and primarily offer primary care.  are mid-level medical roles. So, it’s safe to say that neither of them ranks higher when compared. While they both need to work in the healthcare environment, they have different educational backgrounds, qualifications, and job duties. They also need to work in different medical specialties.

However, physician assistants work under the supervision of a physician but a nursing practitioner can work independently. So, in this sense, you can say that nurse practitioners have more autonomy than a physician assistants

What Can a PA Do That an NP Cannot?

Nurse practitioners need to train in acute care or primary patient care. It’s then further focused on the basis of specific patient populations like geriatrics, adult-gerontology, mental health, pediatrics, and FNPs (Family Nurse Practitioners). NPs get their license based on the training they get and they need to practice in that field.

Whereas PAs don’t get training related to a specific field. Instead, they’re trained as generalists, which means they can practice in any field they want under a physician’s supervision. They can also switch their specialties without undergoing further education or needing to obtain a new certification. That’s why many physician assistants switch their fields during their careers.

Does a PA or NP Get Paid More?

Currently, a nurse practitioner is near the top of the list of best health care jobs in terms of annual salary.On the other hand, the physician assistant job is the second number on that list. People working as NPs or PAs are highly trained professionals and that’s why they get paid more than many mid-level healthcare workers.  

AAPA reports that the annual salary of physician assistants rose by 4.5% from 2020 to 2021. Another report suggests that the annual salary of NPs rose by 12% from 2020 to 2021.

According to the AACM (American Association of Medical Colleges), the demand for assistant physicians and registered nurses is also expected to continue to increase. It can further increase the salaries of these two professions.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Being a Nurse Practitioner vs Being a Physician Assistant?

Just like any other profession, there are advantages as well as downsides to being a nurse practitioner or a physician assistant.

Pros of Being an NP

  • Allows you to make a positive change in people’s lives.
  • Can generate lucrative earnings based on your location, experience level, and employer.
  • The demand for NPs is rising continuously and it’s expected to grow by 45% from 2020 to 2030.
  • Provides you with the opportunity to specialize to earn more and follow your passion.

Cons of Being an NP

  • You need to be on an on-call schedule all the time.
  • You may need to work other than your working hours as well which can be a stressful experience.
  • Increases the risk of catching illnesses and viruses.
  • Need to obtain certification or study more to switch fields.

Pros of Being a PA

  • The demand for PAs is increasing continuously.
  • You’ll have a better work-life experience working as a PA.
  • It allows you to switch fields easily without any certification or education.
  • It’s a highly paid job with a positive job outlook.
  • The work environment allows you to make a difference every day.

Cons of Being a PA

  • You need to expose yourself to working conditions that can be dangerous to your health.
  • You’ll always be working under the supervision of a physician.
  • It can be stressful because you may need to work for long hours.
  • You’ll never get paid as high as physicians.

Final Words

Both nurse practitioners and physician assistants have many similarities. But they’re different healthcare professionals with different educational backgrounds and work environments. We hope this guide will help you understand the differences and similarities between these two professions to choose the right career path.

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