Nurse Practitioner Vs. Physician Assistant: What’s The Difference?

Sheryl Grey Contributor

Brenna Swanston Editor

Updated: Nov 8, 2023, 12:52pm

Editorial Note: We earn a commission from partner links on Forbes Advisor. Commissions do not affect our editors’ opinions or evaluations.

Would you like a healthcare career that allows you to diagnose and treat patients, but you don’t want to spend the time and money to get the education and experience you need to become a physician? If so, you may have thought about becoming a nurse practitioner (NP) or physician assistant (PA). But what is the difference between a PA and an NP, and how do you know which career path is best for you?

Nurse practitioners and physician assistants are both mid-level medical practitioners who have undergone advanced training. They both play vital roles in many hospitals, clinics, physicians’ offices and other medical facilities, making a significant impact on people’s health and well-being.

In this article, we explore nurse practitioner and physician assistant careers in detail, including salaries, job outlooks, and the similarities and differences between NPs and PAs. Keep reading to learn more about these two fulfilling career paths and determine which is the right choice for you.

NPs vs. PAs: How Are They Different?

While they both diagnose medical conditions and treat patients, nurse practitioners and physician assistants have important distinctions. These differences include education and training requirements, job responsibilities, work environments and areas of specialization.

Later, we’ll get into more detail about how these careers differ, but first, let’s look at what each of these professionals does.

What Does a Nurse Practitioner Do?

Nurse practitioners are skilled clinicians who care for patients by diagnosing and treating medical conditions and illnesses, ordering and interpreting lab work and diagnostic tests, and prescribing medication. Nurse practitioners may work as primary care providers or specialize in a particular area of medicine, such as pediatric health, mental health or geriatric care.

Nurse practitioners may consult with or work under physicians, but in many states, they can practice independently without physician supervision. Many patients choose to see nurse practitioners rather than physicians for their primary care needs.

What Is a Physician Assistant?

Physician assistants work under the supervision of physicians to care for patients. They examine and treat patients, order and interpret X-rays, order blood tests and other diagnostic tests, counsel patients on medical care issues, prescribe medication and perform physical examinations.

Physician assistants may specialize in areas such as primary care, psychiatry or emergency medicine, and their roles vary according to their specializations. For example, a PA on a surgical team assists with patient care before, during and after surgical procedures, while a PA in family practice treats patients of all ages in a physician’s office, a clinic or another medical office.

What Is the Difference Between a Nurse Practitioner and a Physician Assistant?

Nurse practitioners and physician assistants are both alternatives to physicians for primary care. While these professionals fill similar roles, there are a few key differences between nurse practitioners and physician assistants. Below, we explore these differences in detail.

Education and Training

While both careers require graduate degrees, other education and training requirements differ between nurse practitioners and physician assistants.

NPs are advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), who need at least a master’s in nursing with a focus in their area of specialization. They must also pass a national certification examination, earn a registered nursing (RN) license and have a state APRN license. Some nurse practitioners complete an advanced education with a doctor of nursing practice (DNP) or a Ph.D.

Physician assistants must have at least a master’s degree from an accredited program. They must also pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE) and become licensed, which earns them the Physician Assistant-Certified (PA-C) credential.

Roles and Responsibilities

The roles and responsibilities of nurse practitioners and physician assistants vary according to their training, specializations, and approaches to patient care.

Nurse practitioners receive advanced nursing training and take a holistic approach to their responsibilities, focusing on their patients’ overall health and well-being. NPs’ work typically includes educating and counseling patients on disease prevention and healthy lifestyle choices. Many NPs work with specific populations, such as children, women or older adults.

Training for PAs is based on the principles of a medical school education, qualifying these professionals to practice medicine. PAs are an important part of a medical team, and in many states, they are required to have legal agreements with their supervising physicians.

Work Environment

Nurse practitioners work in various settings, including physician offices, clinics, hospitals, urgent care facilities, emergency rooms, nursing homes, public health departments, telehealth companies and educational institutions. In many states, nurse practitioners don’t need to be supervised by a physician, which gives them a high level of autonomy as they care for their patients.

Physician assistants also work in various medical settings, such as clinics, physician offices, hospitals, community health centers, nursing homes, correctional institutions, government agencies, rural health clinics and other medical offices. Physician assistants must work under the supervision of a physician, so they have a little less autonomy than a nurse practitioner.

Specialty Areas

One of the primary differences between nurse practitioners and physician assistants lies in the types of specialties they may choose and the types of patients they treat.

Nurse practitioners’ training typically includes a specialization, so they may choose to specialize in a variety of areas, such as pediatrics, women’s health, gerontology or psychiatric care. These specialties allow nurse practitioners to focus their work on specific populations according to their interests.

Physician assistants’ training is more general, so they may specialize in areas of medicine such as family practice, primary care, internal medicine subspecialties, emergency medicine, general surgery or surgical subspecialties.

Salary and Job Outlook

NPs and PAs can both earn lucrative salaries. According to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, the median annual NP salary is $121,610, and physician assistants earn a median annual wage of $126,010. By comparison, the national median salary is $46,310 per year.

The job outlook for both of these occupations looks excellent. The BLS expects employment for nurse practitioners to increase by 38% from 2022 to 2032; physician assistants should see a 27% increase during that time frame. In contrast, the national average projected growth for all jobs nationwide is only 3% between 2022 and 2032.