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Roles in Healthcare: Physician Assistant vs. Nurse Practitioner

Physician Assistant vs. Nurse Practitioner

When you visit the doctor’s office, you may be seen by a physician assistant or nurse practitioner instead of a physician. Both provide many of the same services as a physician and are essential for delivering quality healthcare to patients. While physician assistants and nurse practitioners share some similarities, there are also several key differences in terms of education and the settings in which they work.

What is a physician assistant?

A physician assistant (PA), also known as a physician associate, is a licensed clinician who is able to practice medicine collaboratively with a supervising physician. The physician does not need to be onsite at all times in order for the PA to perform their work duties, but collaboration between the two is required for practice. PAs work in virtually all medical specialties and settings, but the scope of practice varies from state to state. In Connecticut, PAs must work under the supervision, control and responsibility of a licensed physician.

Physician assistants can perform the following duties:

  • Take or review medical histories
  • Examine patients
  • Prescribe medication
  • Provide treatment
  • Diagnose injuries and illness
  • Order and interpret diagnostic tests

The majority of physician assistants (53%) work in physician offices, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). About a quarter (26%) work in state, local, or private hospitals. Employment for PAs is a growing field and projected to grow 31% from 2020 to 2030, with 12,200 openings projected each year.

What are the requirements for a PA?

Physician assistants are educated at the master’s degree level. Most PA programs last an average of 27 months or three academic years. PA programs include classroom instruction and over 2,000 hours of clinical rotations. Additionally, incoming PA students have an average of more than 3,000 hours of direct patient contact experience, according to the American Academy of Physician Associates (AAPA).

PAs are required to take a certification exam and obtain a license from the state in which they plan to practice. To obtain licensure, PAs must pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE). PAs are required to complete 100 hours of continuing medical education credits every two years and take a recertification exam every 10 years.

What is a nurse practitioner?

A nurse practitioner is an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN). An APRN is a nurse that has met advanced educational and clinical practice requirements. APRNs can work independently or collaboratively with physicians. Similar to PAs, the scope of practice for NPs varies by state. In Connecticut, NPs are recognized as primary care providers and are authorized by state law to see patients, provide diagnoses and prescribe medication.

NPs can perform the following duties:

  • Order, perform, and interpret lab work
  • Maintain patient records
  • Educate patients and families
  • Write prescriptions (in some states)
  • Diagnose and treat acute and chronic conditions
  • Act as a primary care provider

According to the BLS, employment for nurse anesthetists, nurse midwives, and nurse practitioners is projected to grow 45% from 2020 to 2030. NP employment is projected to grow by 52%. The setting NPs work in depends on their certification. Family primary care is the most common certification, and private group practice is the most common setting for NPs with that certification.

What are the requirements for an NP?

According to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP), NPs must first become a registered nurse (RN). From there, they must receive a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) and pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLE) to obtain a license in the state in which they want to work. They must then complete a master’s degree or doctoral degree program. NP recertification is every two years and requires a minimum of 1,000 clinical hours in the certified speciality.

Key differences between PAs and NPs

PAs and NPs are both highly qualified to provide healthcare to patients. They can diagnose and treat illnesses, as well as prescribe medication. They also both require a graduate degree, clinical training, and board certifications. In certain states, both NPs and PAs can operate their own practice.

However, there are several differences in terms of work responsibilities. NPs usually specialize in serving a specific patient population or condition. PAs, on the other hand, may focus more on a specific area of medicine and disease diagnosis. NPs and PAs can work autonomously, but PAs must have an agreement to work under a physician.

NPs are able to practice independently in some states. Additionally, NPs follow a nursing model with an emphasis on preventive health and education, while PAs follow a medical model.

NPs who want to switch specialties need to obtain formal education and licensure for the new specialty. PAs can switch specialties without obtaining a new certification once they are certified. PAs earn slightly more than NPs, but salaries can vary by location or facilities.

Which path to choose?

If you are just getting started in the healthcare industry and are wondering which career path to choose, you should think about what your long term goals are. You should also think about what setting you want to work in.

You should also consider the educational requirements for each path. NPs have to have a nursing education, but PA programs look for students that have some experience in healthcare, such as being a paramedic. Neither role is “higher” or better than the other, and both are integral to the healthcare system. Whichever role you choose can have a profound impact on the population you serve.

PACT, a Partner of Hartford HealthCare, Relies on Quality Providers

Physician assistants and nurse practitioners play an important role in ensuring PACT multi-specialty providers can provide quality healthcare services to patients. If you want to share in the PACT vision of delivering patient-centered and innovative healthcare, apply to one of our open jobs today.