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What are the differences between a nurse practitioner and a physician assistant?

Hello, I am a rising junior in high school who is interested in going into the medical field. However, I don't know what I want to be yet. I am currently looking into both of these careers. Which job in your opinion is "better" (in all aspects: salary, job opportunities, hours, etc.) medicine medical healthcare nursing nurse physician doctor

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John’s Answer


Both NPs and PAs are considered advanced practice providers (APP) and are vital assets to our healthcare community. These professions were created to meet the ever growing demand for primary care providers. NPs and PAs must earn a master's degree in their discipline. During these programs, students encounter similar curriculum requirements and focus on some of the same topics, such as pharmacology, pathophysiology, and advanced health assessment. PAs and NPs find work in similar types of settings, including physician's offices, hospitals, and clinics. After earning their master's degrees, PA and NP graduates must pursue licensure and pass national certification exams before they can practice professionally.

A nurse practitioner is an advanced practice nurse that helps with all aspects of patient care, including diagnosis, treatments and consultations. They may work in both inpatient and outpatient situations and can perform independently or as part of a treatment team. Generally, nurse practitioners perform the important task of educating patients about preventative care and prescribed treatments.

Although a nursing diploma or associate's degree is a viable option for RNs, a bachelor's degree in nursing is the preferred educational path for an aspiring nurse practitioner. These are typically offered as Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degrees and some can be completed in as little as 3 years.

After completing RN schooling, students must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX-RN), to become a licensed nurse. RNs will also need to meet any additional state requirements for the state in which they work and may choose to earn additional certifications in areas of interest, such as pediatrics.

Nurse practitioners must then go on to earn their master's degree. Again, there is no shortage of available nurse practitioner schools that offer master's degree and/or doctoral degree programs in nursing. Some of these programs may be available with online coursework and could be completed in as little as 2 years, although some may take 8 semesters or more.

APRNs must meet their state's licensing requirements, which usually require nurse practitioners to pass a national certification exam after completing their master's program. Nurse practitioners can pursue certification through the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board in Family Nurse Practitioner, Adult-Gerontology Nurse Practitioner, or Emergency Nurse Practitioner.

• SALARY OULOOK – The average Nurse Practitioner salary in the United States is $109,233 as of May 28, 2020, but the range typically falls between $101,359 and $118,663. Salary ranges can vary widely depending on many important factors, including education, certifications, additional skills, the number of years you have spent in your profession.


Physician assistants are required to complete formal education programs approved by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). Admission into such programs typically requires a bachelor's degree or some college education and three years of healthcare experience, such as in nursing or emergency medical service positions.

Medical schools, healthcare centers and colleges usually offer physician assistant programs. While associate's and bachelor's programs are available, most physician assistant programs result in 2-year master's degrees. Curricula consist of medical instruction in the classroom, laboratory and clinic.

All states require physician assistants to be licensed to practice in the profession. Every candidate must graduate from an ARC-PA-accredited degree program and pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE). Administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA), the PANCE is a multiple-choice exam that covers medical and surgical fundamentals. Those who pass may use the Physician Assistant - Certified (PA-C) designation.

Experienced physician assistants looking to advance in the field should consider becoming specialists. Physician assistants can choose to practice in a medical specialization such as internal medicine, emergency care, surgery, urology or pediatrics. To become specialists, physician assistants must complete accredited postgraduate programs and obtain specialty certification from the NCCPA. Specialty certification applicants need to have PA-C certification and 1-2 years of assisting and specialty experience.

• SALARY OULOOK – he average Physician Assistant salary in the United States is $100,412 as of May 28, 2020, but the salary range typically falls between $88,684 and $115,761. Salary ranges can vary widely depending on many important factors, including education, certifications, additional skills, the number of years you have spent in your profession.

Hope this Helped Athena

Thank You Kishore. “Even if it’s a little thing, do something for those who have need of a man’s help– something for which you get no pay but the privilege of doing it. For, remember, you don’t live in a world all your own. Your brothers and sisters live are here, too.” – Albert Schweitzer John Frick

Thank you! This was very informative :) Athena R.

Your Welcome Athena, It was my Pleasure. What you achieve inwardly will change outer reality. John Frick

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Suzanne’s Answer

Hi Athena,

This is Sue and I'm a retired registered nurse. The first answer by John is correct. I would like to add some additional resources for you to review. I want for you to be very well advised regarding the similarities/differences between a NP and PA in practice and profession. I will post the references for you to review as well.

Key Differences Between NP and PA:

What is the difference between NP and PA salary?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for nurse practitioners for 2018 was $107,030 with salary ranges from $85,880 to $143,480.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for physician assistants for 2018 was $108,610 per year or $52.22 per hour. The salary range is $61,230 and $151,850.

Does it take longer to become an NP or PA?

Program length is roughly the same after earning a bachelor’s degree. Both are Master’s level programs and can be completed in 2-3 years depending on the specific program.

What are the difference in program costs?

NP school tends to be cheaper because the classroom portion is often completed online while PAs must be on campus for the program.
The average cost for NP school is between $35,000 and $70,000.
The average cost of PA school is between $60,000 to $90,000.

Can NPs and/or PAs operate their own practice?

PAs can never operate their own practice. By law, they are required to work under the direct supervision of a physician or a surgeon.
NPs can operate their own practice in states that allow full authority. This is very state-specific.

What is the difference in the scope of practice of NPs and PAs?

Nurse practitioners are educated to serve a specific population while Physician assistants have a more general background.
Physician assistants tend to have a surgical specialty while NPs are more at the patient’s bedside throughout the hospitalization.

What is the difference in job outlook for NPs and PAs?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the need for nurse practitioners is expected to grow by 31% by 2026. This is much faster than the national average of other healthcare-related professions included Registered Nurses.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the need for physician assistants is expected to grow by 37% by 2026. This is one of the largest growing fields in the healthcare industry.

How long does certification last?

NP recertification is every two years and requires a minimum of 1,000 clinical hours in your certified specialty and continuing education hours.
PA recertification is two parts. Every two years, 100 continuing education hours are required and every ten years a recertification exam must be passed.

On a very basic level, an NP attends a nursing school while a PA attends a medical-type of school or center of medicine. Nurses follow a patient-centered model, in which they focus on disease prevention and health education and handle assessment, diagnosis and treatment. Physician assistants follow a disease-centered model, in which they focus on the biologic and pathologic components of health, and also practice assessment, diagnosis, and treatment. NPs can specialize in several areas, including adult-gerontology/geriatrics, mental health, pediatrics and women's health. PAs have more of a generalized education, but can also specialize in areas like emergency medicine, orthopedics and general surgery. When thinking through the similarities and differences between physician assistants and nurse practitioners, keep in mind the different health care philosophies, educational options and available specializations to determine which might be the best fit for you.

It is most easy to describe the differences between the two professions in terms of medical philosophy: a nurse practitioner is a nurse first and following the nursing models of human health and illness/wellness. Nurses have a more holistic view of the patient. Nurse practitioners are trained in specialty areas and have a greater degree of autonomy in practice in many states.
Physician assistants follow a "medical" model of illness that is they observe the patient via the lens of diagnostic terms and are generalists in training and practice.

You may enjoy this short video:

Let me know if this information is helpful. Bottom line? Either career is BADLY needed!! You will have no difficulty in finding and keeping jobs which will be highly satisfying, challenging, exciting, and very meaningful.

The world is in need of people who will care and provide compassionate care as either a nurse practitioner or a physician's assistant. Wishing you the best of luck in your studies!

Thank you for your response and the links you provided! They were super helpful. Athena R.

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Richard’s Answer

The difference is mainly in the training. Nurse practitioners have a nursing degree followed by a master's to become a nurse practitioner. PAs can have any college degree (as long as they satisfy the prerequisites) then go to 2 years of PA school.

It seems to me that nurse practitioners gravitate more towards primary care while PAs do both primary care and sub-specialty medicine