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The University of St. Thomas (UST) is Houston’s Catholic University, committed to the Catholic intellectual tradition and the dialogue between faith and reason. Our blog is dedicated to helping you explore your future career possibilities and how to make the most of your college experience.

Which Healthcare Role Is Right for You?

Physician Assistant vs. Nurse Practitioner: Which Healthcare Role Is Right for You?

There are few things you find more meaningful than caring for others. It’s why you’re certain a career in healthcare is right for you. The fact that there’s so much growth potential in this sector is just an added perk. You just need to figure out which specific career path is best for your professional goals.

You’ve already looked into numerous options. As you researched different roles, it became clear which ones weren’t quite right for you. Now, you need to make a final decision: physician assistant versus nurse practitioner.

While there are quite a few similarities between these roles, there are some important differences between PAs and NPs as well. Everything from the educational requirements to earning potential can vary. Take a look at how these careers stack up side by side so you determine how you want to proceed.

Physician assistant vs. nurse practitioner: Typical responsibilities

When it comes to common duties, there’s a significant amount of overlap between physician assistants (PAs) and nurse practitioners (NPs). Both of these providers are trained to handle a wide array of issues. Common responsibilities that fall under each role include:

  • Taking medical histories
  • Performing physical examinations
  • Ordering and analyzing test results
  • Diagnosing various conditions
  • Prescribing treatments and medications
  • Counseling patients and their families

Considering there are so many similarities in responsibilities, you may be wondering whether these roles differ at all. In truth, the difference is mostly in philosophy. PAs are trained in a medical model that emphasizes diagnosing and treating diseases. NPs, on the other hand, are more focused on the patient. It’s a subtle, but important, distinction.

Physician assistant vs. nurse practitioner: Scope of practice

Both types of practitioners are subject to regulations regarding their scope of practice — the extent of care they’re legally allowed to perform — that vary by state. NPs will fall under one of three categories: full practice, reduced practice or restricted practice.

Nurse practitioners in states that allow full practice are able to prescribe medications, order diagnostic tests, create treatment plans and carry out all other duties without physician oversight. Reduced practice states allow NPs to be semi-autonomous, but reduce their ability to perform at least one duty. And nurse practitioners in restricted practice states are the most limited. They’re unable to perform at least one typical responsibility, such as independently prescribing medication.   

A physician assistant’s scope of practice also depends on their state. The American Medical Association (AMA) created a detailed chart that illustrates how their ability to work without direct supervision, prescribe various medications and independently complete charts varies by location. One thing that’s important to note is that many states allow a PA’s scope of practice to be determined at the facility where they work. That means the other medical staff and corresponding governing body can grant physician assistants authority to act autonomously.

Physician assistant vs. nurse practitioner: Education and training

Whether it’s PA or NP, the educational path for both roles begins with obtaining a bachelor’s degree. Future NPs will need to attend a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program. They’ll learn all the basics of nursing and complete clinical rotations as part of their four-year program.

Aspiring PAs can choose any major, but they need to complete numerous prerequisite courses to eventually gain acceptance to an advanced degree program. According to a report from the Physician Assistant Education Association, at least 20 percent of programs require coursework in 12 subjects ranging from anatomy to statistics.

Future PAs also need to gain a substantial amount of healthcare experience and take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), though some schools will also accept the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT). Many aspiring PAs also find it helpful to gain research experience. After they’ve completed all admissions requirements, students can apply to PA schools.

After obtaining their BSN degree, future nurse practitioners will need to pass the National Council for Licensure Examination (NCLEX) to become a registered nurse. Many nurses find it helpful to gain a few years of work experience before seeking additional education. It also allows time to explore different specialties. Once ready to continue their education, registered nurses can apply to either a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or, in some cases, a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program. The choice is ultimately up to each student, but there’s evidence that suggests the DNP may become the educational standard for nurse practitioners in the future.

The advanced degree programs for both PAs and NPs begin with classroom instruction and end with clinical rotations. The total amount of clinical training graduate nursing students complete, which can range from 400 to 1,000 hours, will vary depending on both the degree and the chosen specialty. All PA students complete more than 2,000 hours of clinical training.

Nurses with either an MSN or a DNP are eligible to become licensed as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), which includes NPs. The process for obtaining the proper credentials varies by state. PA school graduates must successfully pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) and obtain a state license to begin their careers.

Both physician assistants and nurse practitioners are medical providers who benefit from lifelong learning. This is why both types of professionals will need to complete continuing education requirements to keep their credentials current throughout their careers.

Physician assistant vs. nurse practitioner: Career options

Both NPs and PAs have the option to specialize. Just keep in mind that if you choose the nursing route, you’ll want to attend an advanced degree program in the area you intend to practice. Physician assistants don’t need to complete any specific educational path during PA school to specialize.

While there’s some overlap between the roles physician assistants and nurse practitioners can pursue, there are also some clear differences. Here’s a side-by-side comparison.

Common physician assistant specialties:

  • Family medicine
  • Emergency medicine
  • Internal medicine
  • Dermatology
  • Hospital medicine
  • Pediatrics
  • Gastroenterology
  • Oncology

Common nurse practitioner specialties:

  • Family
  • Adult
  • Adult‒gerontology primary care
  • Acute care
  • Pediatrics‒primary care
  • Adult‒gerontology acute care
  • Women’s health
  • Psychiatric/mental health‒family

Physician assistant vs. nurse practitioner: Salary and outlook

Keep in mind that both specialty and experience can influence salary significantly. That said, aspiring healthcare providers should feel good about their future earning potential. The median annual salary for PAs in 2018 was $108,610. The median annual salary for NPs in 2018 was slightly higher at $113,930.

Students considering both of these roles will have no shortage of job opportunities either. Employment of PAs is projected to grow 31 percent through 2028. And employment of NPs is expected to grow 26 percent over that same time range.

PA vs. NP: Select your professional path

Both roles, while different, are critical in today’s healthcare system. The decision of physician assistant versus nurse practitioner as your intended career is really going to come down to your personal preferences. Considering things like the particular impact you hope to have and how far you plan to take your education can help guide you in the right direction. It also helps to speak to practitioners in both fields to hear their insight.

Once you’ve identified which path you want to pursue, you might be ready to start thinking about next steps. In either case, you’ll need to focus on getting the quality undergraduate education you need. If you’re interested in becoming an NP, visit the University of St. Thomas Bachelor of Science in Nursing program page. Think you’re better suited to become a PA? Stop by the Pre-Health Professions Track page.

About the Author — Staff

AvatarThe University of St. Thomas is the only Catholic, liberal arts university in Houston, Texas. We have 35+ undergraduate majors including STEM, Nursing, Business, Education and Pre-Med. Located in a vibrant urban environment just minutes from downtown and the famed Texas Medical Center, we welcome students of all races and religions to our diverse and collaborative campus.

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