Female doctor with group of happy successful colleagues; blog: Nurse Practitioner vs Physician Assistant: What’s the Difference?A lot of people don’t know the difference between a physician assistant and a nurse practitioner. You might visit either type of healthcare provider in a physician’s office even though they are not physicians. Many people have primary care providers that are NPs or PAs. But what’s the difference?

In basic terms, a nurse practitioner is a registered nurse (RN) with advanced education and clinical training. A physician assistant is a medical professional with advanced education who is trained in the same way physicians are. 

Some of the differences between the two are subtle and some of them are obvious. While they may be able to provide some of the same services, these two types of medical professionals differ in education, scope, and approach to care.

Nurse Practitioner vs Physician Assistant Qualifications

The key differences in a nurse practitioner vs physician assistant begin with the type of education they each get. The programs PAs and NPs go through will inform the kind of care and services they provide once they are certified and licensed.

Physician Assistant Qualifications

A physician assistant is educated at a master’s degree level. PA students usually already have professional experience in or related to the medical field. According to the American Association of Physician Assistants (AAPA), the average PA student enters the PA program with over 3,000 hours of direct patient contact experience. PA programs last about 27 months. Physician assistants are nationally certified and state licensed.

Nurse Practitioner Qualifications

Nurse practitioners also complete at least a master’s level degree. They must have an active RN license plus more advanced training and clinical experience. Each NP program has a specified number of clinical hours applicants need. It takes anywhere from 2 to 4 years to get an NP degree. Nurse practitioners are nationally certified and state licensed. 

Scope of Practice

When looking at the differences between a nurse practitioner vs physician assistant, it’s helpful to see how they practice medicine. Both NPs and PAs can provide some of the same services, but with different focuses.

Physician Assistant Responsibilities

The services a physician assistant can provide vary from state to state bc a PA is licensed on a state level. Most states require PAs to have an agreement to collaborate with a physician or healthcare team within a  practice. However, PAs have the ability to work on their own on a daily basis. Physician assistants practice with an emphasis on diagnosing, assessing, and treating diseases. A physician assistant might be responsible for:

  • Diagnosing acute and chronic conditions
    • Ordering, performing, and interpreting diagnostic tests
  • Diagnosing and treating injuries and illness
  • Prescribing medication to treat a medical condition
  • Any other service that falls within their legal authority and training that is normally provided by a physician
Nurse Practitioner Responsibilities

Nurse practitioners often provide specialized care to certain groups of people. They also emphasize health promotion and preventive care for their patients. And a lot of people see these providers on a regular basis. According to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, there are more than one billion NP visits each year. 

There are many specialties an NP can pursue, including family care, pediatrics, women’s health, and mental health (to name a few). As you can see, these specialties are focused on specific patient populations rather than a single type of medical condition or area of medicine. Some things a nurse practitioner might be responsible for:

  • Diagnosing acute and chronic conditions
    • Ordering, performing, and interpreting diagnostic tests
  • Treating acute and chronic conditions
    • Prescribing medications
  • Patient education on improving health with lifestyle habits
  • Counseling on a variety of health needs

Approach to Medical and Patient Care

As you may have noticed, there are many responsibilities and services that apply to both NPs and PAs. However, one key difference when it comes to nurse practitioners vs physician assistants is their approach to patient care. These differences are due to the educational programs each type of provider goes through and what training they get.

  • Nurse practitioners take a nursing approach to patient care. That shouldn’t be surprising since “nurse” is right there in the job title. A nursing approach means that providers focus on patient care. As we mentioned before, they focus on certain patient populations (women, children, geriatrics) rather than focusing on a specific type of medicine.
  • Physician assistants are trained using a medical model. That means that they learn to provide care through disease management and prevention. PAs specialize in specific fields of medicine like dermatology or orthopedics.

PAs and NPs at South Shore Orthopedics

At South Shore Orthopedics, we are proud to have both physician assistants and nurse practitioners among our providers. Our patients benefit from both approaches to care and our NPs and PAs are a valuable part of the South Shore team. Call our office at (781) 337-5555 to make an appointment with one of our nurse practitioners, physician assistants, or physicians.