Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician's Assistant: What's the Difference? 

Written by: Applied Nursing Research Editorial Team   •  May 19, 2024

Nurse Practitioner Vs Physicians Assistant

In the dynamic world of healthcare, where the patient’s needs remain central, two primary care providers often come into focus: Nurse Practitioners (NPs) and Physician’s Assistants (PAs). Both professions play crucial roles in the healthcare delivery system, often working hand-in-hand with doctors to ensure that patients receive comprehensive care. Yet, despite the similarities in their day-to-day roles, NPs and PAs possess distinct training, responsibilities, and scopes of practice.

Understanding these differences is not only essential for patients, who must navigate an ever-complex healthcare environment, but also for aspiring medical professionals deciding which career path to pursue. This article seeks to shed light on these two professions, outlining their historical backgrounds, core responsibilities, training, and the future outlook for each. 

Historical Background

Evolution of the Nurse Practitioner Role

The role of the Nurse Practitioner emerged in the mid-1960s in response to a growing need for primary care providers. The U.S. was facing a doctor shortage, especially in underserved and rural areas. Recognizing the advanced skills and knowledge that registered nurses brought to the table, the first NP program was introduced at the University of Colorado. Designed for registered nurses with a baccalaureate degree, this program sought to provide them with advanced training to diagnose and manage common acute and chronic illnesses.

Initially, NPs focused primarily on pediatric care, but as the demand for healthcare grew and the profession gained recognition, the role expanded. Today, Nurse Practitioners are found across various specialties, from family practice and adult care to acute care and women’s health, proving their versatility and importance in the healthcare landscape.

Emergence of the Physician’s Assistant Profession

Almost concurrently with the rise of NPs, the Physician’s Assistant profession was born. In the mid-1960s, physicians and educators recognized a similar need for more hands on deck, especially as the Vietnam War saw medics and corpsmen return with a wealth of medical knowledge but no civilian role to fill. Dr. Eugene Stead of Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina created the first PA program in 1965, specifically tailored for these returning medics.

The intent was clear: train these individuals to perform many of the routine care tasks that doctors undertook, under the direct supervision of a physician. The model was, in essence, to amplify the reach of the physician. Over time, as the role became more defined and recognized, the PA profession diversified, covering multiple medical specialties and taking on more autonomous roles in various healthcare settings.

The journey of both NPs and PAs showcases a medical world in flux, adapting to societal needs, and recognizing the value of alternative primary care providers. Their origin stories, though rooted in the same era and born from similar necessities, took different paths, setting the stage for the distinctions and similarities we observe today.

What Is a Nurse Practitioner?

Definition and primary responsibilities

A Nurse Practitioner (NP) is an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) who has undergone additional training beyond that of a registered nurse. They are skilled not only in nursing care but also in certain aspects of medical care traditionally undertaken by physicians. As primary, acute, and specialty healthcare providers, NPs engage in a range of activities including:

  • Diagnosing and treating acute and chronic conditions.

  • Ordering, conducting, and interpreting diagnostic tests.

  • Prescribing medications and other treatments.

  • Promoting health and disease prevention.

Areas of specialization

Nurse Practitioners often specialize in specific areas of medicine. Common specializations include:

  1. Family health (FNP)

  2. Adult-gerontology (AGNP)

  3. Pediatrics (PNP)

  4. Acute care (ACNP)

  5. Women’s health (WHNP)

  6. Psychiatry and mental health (PMHNP)

Scope of practice

The scope of practice for NPs varies by state. Some states grant “full practice” status to NPs, allowing them to assess, diagnose, interpret diagnostic tests, and initiate treatment plans autonomously. Other states may require NPs to work under the supervision or collaboration of a physician, especially when prescribing medications.

What Is a Physician’s Assistant?

Definition and primary responsibilities

A Physician’s Assistant (PA) is a medical professional who diagnoses illnesses, develops and manages treatment plans, prescribes medications, and may even act as a primary healthcare provider. Their work is often, but not always, done in collaboration with a physician. Typical responsibilities of a PA include:

  • Taking medical histories and performing physical exams.

  • Diagnosing and treating illnesses and injuries.

  • Ordering and interpreting lab tests.

  • Counseling on preventative health care.

  • Assisting in surgeries.

Clinical rotations and specialties

Physician’s Assistant education often involves broad clinical rotations that mirror those of medical school students, but in a shortened timeframe. This training prepares PAs for work in various areas of medicine, from primary care to surgery. Specialties can include:

  1. Emergency medicine

  2. Family and internal medicine

  3. Pediatrics

  4. Orthopedics

  5. General surgery and surgical subspecialties

Supervision and collaboration with physicians

PAs are trained to work as part of a team. The nature and degree of collaboration between the PA and physician are often defined by the state’s practice laws. While PAs can work autonomously, they are generally required to have a supervising physician. This doesn’t mean a physician needs to be present at all times but rather available for consultation when needed.

The PA’s role and the relationship with their supervising physician is fluid and can change based on the PA’s experience, the physician’s trust, and the specific clinical situation.

Together, both Nurse Practitioners and Physician’s Assistants provide essential medical services, alleviating the burden on physicians and improving patient access to care. While they share many duties, their origins, training, and certain aspects of their roles are unique, leading to the distinctions and synergies observed in modern healthcare settings.

Comparing Nurse Practitioner and Physician’s Assistant

Navigating the healthcare landscape can be complex, especially with roles that appear to overlap. Both NPs and PAs are foundational pillars in ensuring patients receive comprehensive and timely care. Let’s delve into their similarities and unique aspects.

Key Similarities

Core responsibilities and patient care: Both NPs and PAs are trained to diagnose and treat a variety of health conditions, prescribe medications, and offer patient-centered care. They are central in coordinating healthcare services, counseling patients, and ensuring adherence to treatment plans.

Professional autonomy: NPs and PAs often possess the ability to work autonomously, although the extent varies by state and institutional policies. Both can serve as primary healthcare providers, particularly in settings where physician access might be limited.

Credentialing and certifications: Both professions require rigorous credentialing processes. For NPs, certification is typically specialty-specific, while PAs take a generalist examination but may pursue additional specialty certifications.

Key Differences

Education and training requirements: NPs are trained under the nursing model, emphasizing patient-centered care and holistic health approaches. PAs are educated under the medical model, with a structure paralleling that of medical school but in a more condensed format.

Regulatory and practice authority by state: The scope of practice for NPs and PAs varies considerably by state. While some states allow NPs full autonomous practice, others require physician collaboration or oversight. PAs generally work under the supervision of a physician, but the definition of “supervision” can vary.

Prescriptive authority: Both NPs and PAs can prescribe medications. However, the authority, especially for controlled substances, can differ. NPs might have more or less restrictive prescriptive rights based on state laws compared to PAs.

Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician’s Assistant Salary and Job Outlook

Understanding the financial and job prospects of both professions is crucial for those considering either career path.

Nurse Practitioner Salary

Average salary: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports an average salary of around $124,000 for NPs. However, this figure can fluctuate based on factors such as specialization, experience, location, and workplace setting.

Geographic and specialty variations: NPs in specialized fields like psychiatric care or neonatal care often earn more than those in general practice. Similarly, areas with a higher cost of living or regions with a greater demand for healthcare services may offer higher salaries.

Physician’s Assistant Salary

Average salary: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates a median annual wage of $121,000 for PAs. Like NPs, several factors can influence this amount.

Variability by region and practice area: PAs in specialties such as dermatology or surgical subspecialties might earn higher salaries. Geographic variations, based on demand and living costs, also play a significant role in salary differences.

Nurse Practitioner Job Outlook

Current demand and growth projections: The demand for NPs is projected to grow significantly, especially with the aging baby boomer population requiring more healthcare services. The BLS projected a 40% growth rate for NPs from 2021 to 2031.

 Factors influencing demand: Apart from the aging population, factors such as the focus on preventive care, changing healthcare laws, and physician shortages in certain areas contribute to the increasing demand for NPs.

Physician’s Assistant Job Outlook

Current demand and growth projection projections: The BLS forecasted a 28% growth rate for PAs between 2021 and 2031, much faster than the average for all occupations.

Factors driving growth: The need for healthcare services in underserved areas, coupled with the cost-effectiveness of hiring PAs in collaborative teams, drives the demand. As with NPs, the aging population also plays a significant role in the job growth projections for PAs.

Both professions promise substantial job opportunities and competitive salaries. However, it’s essential to consider individual preferences, desired work settings, and specialization areas when contemplating a decision.

Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician’s Assistant Education Requirements

The educational pathways for Nurse Practitioners and Physician’s Assistants, though rigorous for both, differ in focus, duration, and foundational principles. Here’s a deeper dive into these requirements.

What Degree Do I Need to Become a Nurse Practitioner?

  1. Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN): The journey to becoming an NP typically starts with acquiring a BSN, followed by licensure as a registered nurse (RN).

  2. Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP): While an MSN was previously the standard, many institutions are shifting towards recommending or requiring a DNP for NPs. This decision often aligns with the American Association of Colleges of Nursing’s recommendation.

 Curriculum (MSN/DNP for Nurse Practitioner)

Coursework may include:

  • Advanced physiology and pathophysiology

  • Advanced health assessment

  • Pharmacology for advanced practice nursing

  • Clinical decision-making and primary care

  • Health promotion and disease prevention

  • Clinical hours: Typically, programs require 500-1000 supervised clinical hours for graduation.

Certification and Licensure

After completing the graduate degree, prospective NPs must obtain state licensure and pass a national certification exam in their chosen specialty.

What Degree Do I Need to Become a Physician’s Assistant?

  1. Bachelor’s Degree: A bachelor’s degree in any field can suffice, though many PA students have backgrounds in health sciences, biology, or related fields. Prior healthcare experience, such as work as an EMT, nurse, or paramedic, can be beneficial.

  2. Master’s in Physician Assistant Studies (MPAS): This is the standard requirement for becoming a PA. The program usually spans 2-3 years and combines classroom learning with clinical rotations.

Curriculum (MPAS for Physician’s Assistant)

Coursework may include: 

  • Medical sciences including anatomy, physiology, and biochemistry

  • Clinical medicine across various disciplines

  • Clinical pharmacology

  • Medical ethics and health policy

  • Clinical skills and physical diagnosis

  • Clinical rotations in family medicine, internal medicine, surgery, pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, emergency medicine, and psychiatry.

Certification and Licensure 

After completing their Master’s program, PAs must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) and obtain state-specific licensure.

Practice Settings for Nurse Practitioner and Physician’s Assistant

Both NPs and PAs are versatile in their career choices, allowing them to work in various healthcare settings. Their specific roles can differ slightly based on the institution and their collaboration agreements.

Nurse Practitioner Practice Settings

  • Primary Care Clinics: NPs often serve as primary care providers, diagnosing, treating, and managing patients of all ages.

  • Hospitals: They can be found in various hospital departments, from emergency to surgical settings, providing acute and specialized care.

  • Specialized Clinics: From cardiology to women’s health, NPs can work in specialty clinics providing targeted care.

  • Long-term Care Facilities: NPs may provide regular assessments and treatment to residents in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

  • Telehealth and Remote Services: With technology’s growth, many NPs are now offering consultations and follow-ups via telemedicine platforms.

Physician’s Assistant Practice Settings:

  • Medical Offices and Clinics: PAs often work alongside physicians in medical offices, providing patient consultations, examinations, and treatments.

  • Hospitals: PAs work in various hospital departments, from the ER to surgery, playing roles ranging from medical care to surgical assistance.

  • Urgent Care Centers: Due to their generalist training, PAs are often found in urgent care centers, treating a wide array of conditions.

  • Specialty Areas: Some PAs opt for specialty areas, such as dermatology or orthopedics, offering focused care.

  • Educational Institutions: Experienced PAs might work as educators in PA training programs or offer clinical training for students.

The flexibility in practice settings for both NPs and PAs highlights their adaptability and the trust healthcare institutions place in them to deliver high-quality care.

Tips for Choosing Between Nurse Practitioner and Physician’s Assistant

For those contemplating a career in healthcare and are torn between becoming a Nurse Practitioner (NP) or a Physician’s Assistant (PA), the decision can be intricate. Both professions are prestigious, offering the potential for deep personal fulfillment and the privilege of profoundly impacting patient lives. When determining which path to tread, it’s essential to factor in various considerations.

Your educational background and overarching philosophy of care can guide your choice. Those with a foundation in nursing or previous experience as registered nurses might find the transition to an NP role to be more seamless and aligned with their training. On the other hand, if the generalized medical model, which parallels that of physicians, appeals to you, the PA pathway might resonate more.

The scope of practice and how it’s defined in your state or your intended location of practice is another vital consideration. Some states empower NPs with the privilege to practice independently, whereas PAs usually operate under the supervision of a physician. It’s beneficial to familiarize yourself with the regulatory landscape of the region you aim to serve.

Specialization is another element to ponder. If you’re gravitating towards a particular medical niche, it’s worth investigating which of the two professions offers a clearer pathway into that specialty. PAs generally receive a more generalist training, affording them the flexibility to transition between specialties. Conversely, NPs often embark on specialized tracks during their education, which could be limiting if a change of focus becomes desirable later in the career.

Long-term career aspirations can also be a deciding factor. If you’re driven by visions of establishing your own clinic or exercising greater autonomy in clinical decisions, it would be prudent to understand the roles and permissions surrounding NPs, especially in your chosen state. If, however, you find yourself thriving in a collaborative milieu and cherish close partnerships with physicians, the environment of a PA might be more to your liking.

Furthermore, when weighing the decision, it’s essential to be practical by considering the financial and temporal investments associated with each profession. PA programs, post-bachelor’s, typically span 2-3 years, whereas the NP trajectory, especially if one is inclined towards a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP), might extend longer. Tuition costs, potential earnings during the educational phase, and available financial support should also be assessed.

Lastly, one of the most enlightening steps in this decision-making journey is seeking mentorship. Engaging with NPs and PAs who are actively practicing can offer a wealth of insights. Consider dedicating time to shadow professionals from both spheres to immerse yourself in the daily rhythms, responsibilities, and rewards of each role. This hands-on experience can be instrumental in helping you discern where your passion truly lies.


In the intricate tapestry of healthcare, both Nurse Practitioners (NPs) and Physician’s Assistants (PAs) emerge as vital threads, weaving together a system that prioritizes patient care, adaptability, and expertise.

While they share similarities in their roles and responsibilities, the distinct nuances in their training, practice settings, and philosophical underpinnings set them apart. As the landscape of healthcare continues to evolve, so too will the roles of NPs and PAs. For those considering a journey into either profession, it’s paramount to reflect on personal aspirations, professional goals, and the kind of impact they wish to make in the world of healthcare.

Both paths offer rich rewards and challenges, promising a fulfilling career dedicated to enhancing and preserving the well-being of countless individuals. Whichever path one chooses, it’s a commitment to a noble cause — a dedication to healing, helping, and bringing hope to many.

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