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

Physician assistants and nurse practioners are two professions that were developed in the 1960s to ensure patients still received excellent medical care when doctors were scarce. Both physician assistants and nurse practioners are able to diagnose and treat patients, and they are both able to write prescriptions to patients as well. The key differences between both professions and medical doctors are the extent of professional autonomy and the ability to perform or lead surgeries.

Both physician assistants and nurse practitioners are excellent career paths for students interested in pursuing a career in the medical field but don’t want to attend seven years of school after college. If you want to figure out which career is a better option for you, make sure you understand the differences between nurse practitioners and physician assistants.

The key differences between physician assistants and nurse practioners are their training and educational background. Nurse practitioners are registered nurses who have earned a master’s degree. Physician assistants, on the other hand, earn their undergraduate degree in a health-related field and then enter a three-year master’s program to become a certified physician assistant. This means that a student who wants to become a physician assistant must have intention to do it, whereas nurse practitioners often start out as registered nurses and can work for a while before they go on to get their master’s degree.

While physician assistants are certified through a national exam called the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE), nurse practioners are typically certified based on state guidelines and licenses.  Physician assistants also must be licensed in a state, but there isn’t as much variation between states as there is for nurse practitioners.

Job Opportunities
Nurse practitioners tend to be specialists (like in pediatrics or gynecology), whereas physician assistants are trained to be generalists. This means that nurse practitioners may be more likely to work in a specialist practice and may therefore have a different work environment than physician assistants. The actual responsibilities of nurse practioners and physician assistants may not always be that different, but the amount of autonomy professionals from each occupation will depend entirely on the leading physician.

Salary and Job Growth
The average national physician assistants salary and nurse practitioners salary is about the same and sits around $94,000 a year. The job growth for nurse practitioners is around 31% and the growth for physician assistants is 38%, but both figures are extremely good indicators of job growth.

Which One is Better?
The truth of the matter is that the difference between a nurse practitioner and a physician assistant is a pretty fine line. They are both professions with good, steady salary prospects and plenty of job opportunities. There’s a need for both. The main difference is simply the educational backgrounds and slight differences between state certifications. 

Last Updated: April 15, 2015