Difference between a Nurse Practitioner and a Physician Assistant

Updated on February 4, 2017

As part of a healthcare team, a nurse practitioner and a physician assistant are both required to render services for the prevention and treatment of diseases. However, there are significant differences between these two professions in terms of qualifications and scope of services.

Definitions

Nurse Practitioner

A nurse practitioner (NP) is a highly advanced registered nurse trained to promote holistic health and wellness. To qualify as an entry-level nurse practitioner, a registered nurse is required to obtain a master’s or doctoral degree. In addition to degree requirements, a nurse practitioner is obligated to undergo continuous nursing education and re-certify after a specific number of years.

Because nurse practitioners are more academically advanced, they are more capable of making complex decisions related to healthcare as compared to registered nurses. Also, they can independently create a patient’s care plan since they possess an expert knowledge base and clinical competency.

physician assistant

A physician assistant (PA), on the other hand, is a mid-level medical practitioner qualified to render basic medical services under the supervision of a licensed physician. Allowed to practice in both medical and surgical fields, a physician assistant can order laboratory examinations, assess medical history and physical examinations and perform other basic medical services.

A physician assistant must obtain a master’s degree and qualify for PANCE, a national certification examination. Additionally, a physician assistant should pursue continuous education and re-certify after a specific period of time by taking another certification examination known as PANRE.

Nurse Practitioner vs Physician Assistant

So what’s the difference between a nurse practitioner and a physician assistant? Even though both professions offer healthcare services, there are a myriad of differences between the two in terms of qualifications, limitations and scope of work.

Firstly, nurse practitioners obtained their bachelor’s degree from a nursing school, while physician assistants attended PA school. Since this is the case, they have a completely different perspective in terms of rendering services since nursing schools utilize a patient-centered learning model, whereas PA schools are more focused on the pathophysiology and treatment of diseases.

In terms of qualifications, nurse practitioners are required to pass their licensure examination, obtain a master’s or doctoral degree and undergo a continual learning program. Also, they must pass a certification exam specific to their field of work (i.e. geriatrics, OB-GYN or pediatrics) and re-certify after a number of years.

Physician assistants, on the other hand, need to graduate from a PA program, pass a general medical examination (PANCE) and attend a continuous learning program. For re-certification, they must pass another certification exam (PANRE).

Additionally, physician assistants are required to provide healthcare services under the supervision or the authority of a licensed physician. Meanwhile, nurse practitioners can work more independently, as they can create a healthcare plan, carry out nursing-related tasks and provide assistance to patients even without the supervision of a licensed physician, depending on state laws, along with their level of education and qualifications.

Lastly, even though nurse practitioners and physician assistants are allowed to promote holistic health and treat existing medical conditions, physician assistants are more qualified to prescribe medications and perform basic medical services executed by a licensed physician. Nurse practitioners, on the other hand, may have to obtain additional certifications to carry out these tasks.

Comparison Chart

Nurse PractitionerPhysician Assistant
Advanced registered nurseMid-level medical practitioner
Graduated from a nursing schoolGraduated from a PA program
Qualifications include a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing, master’s or doctoral degree, and NP certificationQualifications include a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, a general medical certification for physician assistant (PANCE)
Allowed to render services even in the absence of a licensed physicianAllowed to render services under the supervision or authority of a licensed physician
May need to obtain additional certifications and qualifications before performing basic medical services executed by licensed physicians, depending on state lawsCan perform basic medical services executed by licensed physicians