Nurse Practitioner vs Physician Assistant: What Is the Difference?

A nurse practitioner with other students
Many people ask what are the differences between a NP and a PA. In this post, we discuss the distinctions and the similarities in these two professions.
A nurse practitioner with other students
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What is the difference between a Nurse Practitioner and a Physician Assistant? What are the differences in their roles? How do their responsibilities differ? Do they have the same licensure requirements? 

These are a few of the common questions many people have, both inside and outside the healthcare industry, when it comes to NPs and PAs.

While it is true that there are a lot of similarities in the two professions, there are also some unique distinctions in the “NP vs. PA” discussion. Let’s explore some of those differences . . .

First of All, What Is a Nurse Practitioner?

The American Association of Nurse Practitioners® (AANP®) defines NPs as:

Clinicians that blend clinical expertise in diagnosing and treating health conditions with an added emphasis on disease prevention and health management. NPs bring a comprehensive perspective and personal touch to health care.

What Is a Physician Assistant?

The American Academy of Physician Assistants® (AAPA®) defines PAs this way:

PAs are medical professionals who diagnose illness, develop and manage treatment plans, prescribe medications, and often serve as a patient’s principal healthcare provider. With thousands of hours of medical training, PAs are versatile and collaborative.

Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician Assistant: Similarities in Scope of Practice

The scope of practice for both career choices differs from state to state, but generally speaking, nurse practitioners and physician assistants both . . .

  • Examine patients
  • Order, perform, and interpret diagnostic tests (e.g., x-rays, lab work, etc.)
  • Formulate a diagnosis
  • Prescribe medications and other treatments
  • Assess and record a patient’s progress
  • Educate patients and their families (e.g., disease prevention, healthy lifestyle choices, etc.)

Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician Assistant: Differences in Scope of Practice

Nurse Practitioners most often provide care to specific patient populations such as pediatrics, family care, women’s health or mental health, while physician assistants are more likely to specialize in a particular area of medical practice. The differences in their approach to patient care can be attributed to the different NP vs. PA educational trajectory . . .

Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician Assistant: Differences in Education/Clinical Training

The path of the NP:

An aspiring NP must earn at least a master’s level degree in nursing. This comes from attending an accredited NP program, which can take two–four years to complete.

Before entering a nursing graduate program, the candidate must earn a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), pass the NCLEX-RN®, and gain RN experience (most programs require a minimum of two years).

If the candidate is an RN who has an RN diploma or an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) instead of a BSN, he or she will need to enroll in an RN-to-BSN or RN-to-MSN bridge program to get the required degree.

When candidates enter an NP program, they determine the type of patient population in which they wish to practice so that their education matches the knowledge and clinical skills they need to the patients they will be treating.

Upon successfully completing an accredited NP program, the aspiring nurse practitioner must pass either the ANCC® or the AANP® exam to gain certification.

The path of the PA:

A PA candidate must earn a bachelor’s degree and demonstrate a level of health care experience before being accepted into a PA program. As part of a candidate’s degree, most PA programs require the following prerequisites: chemistry, physiology, anatomy, microbiology, and biology. 

In addition to a bachelor’s degree, PA programs want to see that a candidate has several years of experience with patient care. The AAPA gives some examples of hands-on medical experience students can gain:

Medical assistant, emergency medical technician (EMT), paramedic, medic or medical corpsman, Peace Corps volunteer, lab assistant/phlebotomist, emergency room technician, surgical tech, certified nursing assistant (CNA).

After acceptance into an accredited PA program, the aspiring physician assistant must complete the program (approximately two–three years) in order to earn a master’s degree. The first year in a PA program is the didactic (or classroom) year. The remainder of the educational experience is spent in a variety of clinical rotations.

Both NPs and PAs are required to be nationally certified and state licensed in order to practice.

Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician Assistant: Salary

Salaries vary according to the city and state in which you live, but according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2020 median pay for both professions is . . . 

Nurse Practitioner: $117,670

Physician Assistant: $115,390

Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician Assistant: Two Great Options

If you are choosing a career path and considering these two professions, there really is no bad decision when selecting between nurse practitioner and physician assistant. Both vocations are rewarding jobs that are growing in demand with each new year. Do some research on your own; talk to a practicing NP and a practicing PA; think about what specialties interest you; and make an informed decision that will start you on your journey to becoming a medical professional.

Are you preparing to further your nursing career as an FNP? Let us help you pass your licensure exam! Our industry-leading online learning tool incorporates challenging questions, detailed explanations, vivid illustrations, and customizable flashcards to reinforce clinical thinking. It’s no surprise that over 700,000 nursing students have used UWorld for their high-stakes exam preparation since we launched our nursing product in 2015. Start your FREE trial today to see how we can prepare you for the test and for new levels of career success.

What’s a nurse practitioner (NP)? American Association of Nurse Practitioners. (n.d.). Retrieved October 4, 2021, from
“what is a pa?”. AAPA. (2021, August 26). Retrieved October 4, 2021, from
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021, September 8). Nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and Nurse Practitioners : Occupational Outlook Handbook. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved October 4, 2021, from
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021, September 8). Physician assistants : Occupational Outlook Handbook. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved October 4, 2021, from
Become a PA. AAPA. (2021, January 27). Retrieved October 4, 2021, from
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2021, September 8). Physician assistants : Occupational Outlook Handbook. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved October 4, 2021, from

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