As someone considering a career in medicine, you may be wondering what physician assistants (PAs) and nurse practitioners (NPs) do, the key differences between the roles, and what opportunities both careers offer within the healthcare industry.

Below, we explore the daily responsibilities and expertise required of both professions and the key differences between them so you can decide what path is right for you.

What do Nurse Practitioners do?

Nurse practitioners play an important role in healthcare, no matter the type of facility they work in or the patient population they serve. NPs serve a primary role of monitoring patient health, providing direct care, and serving as a primary care provider.

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An NP’s profession is primarily focused on monitoring patient health and providing direct care, which typically encompasses the following day-to-day duties:

  • Recording and tracking patient medical histories, such as present symptoms and medication history, to provide accurate medical records and proper diagnoses
  • Collecting information, data, and biological samples from patients
  • Observing patients and completing detailed, routine examinations
  • Ordering lab tests and diagnostic procedures
  • Analyzing test results and creating patient treatment plans
  • Prescribing medication and care, then monitoring the results
  • Performing medical procedures based on their specializations
  • Managing other members of the nursing team, including RNs, LPNs, CNAs, and other staff members
  • And more

Nurse practitioners’ workloads vary depending on the field you work in (e.g., pediatrics, emergency services, psychiatric-mental health, women’s health, etc.), but providing excellent patient care and medical expertise is always top priority.

What do Physician Assistants do?

Like nurse practitioners, physician assistants are vital to the healthcare community. They diagnose illnesses, create and oversee treatment, prescribe medications, and serve as healthcare providers.

By law, physician assistants work under direct supervision of a physician or surgeon, and, on a daily basis, PAs are typically:

  • Recording patient medical histories
  • Performing physical exams
  • Educating patients on preventative healthcare and disease prevention
  • Ordering and analyzing diagnostic and lab tests
  • Diagnosing acute and chronic conditions
  • Documenting relevant patient information and analyzing treatment plan results
  • Prescribing medications
  • Performing procedures and assisting in surgeries
  • Making rounds in hospitals
  • Performing clinical research and collaborating with the medical team

PAs work in hospitals, medical offices, nursing homes, clinics, education institutions, community health centers, and the government. As a PA, you can practice in a variety of specialties, such as family practice, dermatology, critical care, anesthesia, radiology, surgery (e.g., trauma, transplant, vascular), and many more.

Key Differences Between PAs and NPs

1. Roles and Responsibilities

Although a physician assistant’s work responsibilities may overlap with those of nurse practitioners, there are differences between the two jobs.

Nurse practitioners generally specialize in serving a particular patient “population” that focuses on patients who may be of a certain age or have a particular condition, while PAs tend to focus on a specific area of medicine, such as emergency, internal, or surgery specialties. This can dramatically influence the daily responsibilities of both positions.

And, although both careers allow you to work autonomously, PAs are required to have an agreement to work with/under a physician, whereas in some states, including Massachusetts, NPs have full practice authority, allowing them more freedom and flexibility in their careers.

2. Training and Education

Nurse practitioners and physician assistants both undergo extensive clinical training and education, both in medicine and in important soft skills. Primarily, NPs adhere to a patient-focused nursing model, whereas PAs follow a disease-centered (medical) model of practice.

“PAs use the medical model and they tend to have a lot more of a science background,” says Carol Martin, Assistant Dean of the Nurse Practitioner Program at Regis College. “NPs use a nursing traditional model where we see the patient holistically and use a wellness approach to care for the whole person.”

To become an NP, you must first be a registered nurse by completing your Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), passing the National Council Licensure Examination, and obtaining a license in the state you wish to work. Then, you will need to earn your graduate degree, such as a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP).

In order to become a physician assistant, you must first complete a related bachelor’s degree before enrolling in a two- or three-year master’s-level PA program. Then, to obtain licensure, PAs must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE).

3. Salary and Job Outlook

Both physician assistants and nurse practitioners earn competitive salaries and benefits. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), PAs earn an annual median salary of $121,530 ($58.43 per hour), and NPs earn a median salary of $123,780 a year ($59.51 per hour).

Both careers are predicted to grow quickly and steadily: 31 percent between 2019–2029 for PAs, and 45 percent for NPs, which means there are (and will continue to be) many opportunities and career paths in both medical fields.

Choosing the Right Career

Becoming either a nurse practitioner or physician assistant can be a rewarding decision regardless of the route you take, as both will give you the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of patients. Indeed, you will often be directly responsible for saving people’s lives.

Are you considering a career as a nurse practitioner? Learn more about the degree programs offered by Regis College, including the Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) to find the right path for you.

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