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Explaining the Difference Between a Physician Assistant and a Nurse Practitioner


The nurse practitioner (NP) and the physician assistant (PA) – what’s the difference? As surprising as it may sound – because the roles are very certainly distinct – these are two roles that people (both inside and outside of the healthcare world) mix up all the time. Perhaps this is down to the fact that when you see them working, it can look as if a PA and an NP are doing more or less the same thing.

For sure, both assist doctors and carry out less medically specialized tasks (i.e., everything with the exception operations and consultations) but there are real differences. Health Jobs Nation wide, a healthcare jobs recruitment service offering physician jobs among others, report that the paths towards each of these professions are plenty different and you’re sure to find yourself following a quite different route when training for either of these professions.

So, we’ve established that they different – but how? To understand this better, it’s worth looking at what they have in common. It should certainly be noted that they in fact have plenty of things in common. You can expect a lot of overlap between the roles, and if you’re a patient, you might walk in for a routine checkup or some small medical procedure and have a PA do it when it was an NP the last time.

The Education Programs

One of the best ways to appreciate the difference between these two roles (especially if you’re deciding on picking one) is to look at the different educational programs each role requires. Most people are aware that a nurse’s duties differ from a physician’s. Herein lies one of the major differences – physician assistants are trained more in line with the same model used for doctors themselves. The clue is in the name – physician assistants are there to assist doctors in their work. Nurses very often work completely independently of doctors.

NPs, then, are trained more in line with the nursing model. This requires less hours and less theoretical medical expertise. They also receive more practical training regarding ongoing patient care (one part of the job where they work independently of doctors). This means more of an emphasis on patient support, which includes a lot of focus on social issues, individual needs, and achieving the goal of patient independence.


Another major difference between these two roles lies in their respective areas of specialty and the degrees needed to specialize. Any medical student will know that specializing occurs later in the educational/training program, and the same is true for both PAs and NPs.

However, this is where the similarities end. PAs generally specialize in things like surgical assistance and acute care. NPs tend to specialize more in patient care and ongoing patient recovery. This means that NPs will specialize in things like family care, pediatrics, and psychiatric care. These specialties require different degrees, with the main difference being that between doctor assistance and patient care.

Oversight Requirements

Closely related to the relative independence of nurses compared to PAs is the level of oversight required by law for each of these professions. PAs are currently required – in all fifty states – to have physician oversight. Nurses, on the other hand, have a similar requirement in only twenty-seven states. This is, naturally enough, because PAs do work closer to that of a doctor. Nurses plough their own furrow (to some extent).

Such is how the relative difference between these two roles manifest. While they might seem similar, it is important to know these distinctions because where education and daily work is concerned, they are certainly not.


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