Career Path: Nurse Practitioner or Physician Assistant?

How Does the Education of a Nurse Practitioner Compare to that of a Physician Assistant?

As you progress in your nursing or health care career, maybe you’ve considered becoming a Nurse Practitioner (NP)…and maybe you’ve also considered the Physician’s Assistant route. Both are excellent options if you’re interested in medicine and health care but do not want to become a doctor.

Put simply, Nurse Practitioners (NPs) are clinicians that diagnose and treat health conditions with an added emphasis on disease prevention and health management. They provide primary, acute and specialty health care services like performing/interpreting diagnostic tests, diagnosing and treating acute and chronic conditions, prescribing medications and managing patients’ overall care (and educating them on health, lifestyle and disease prevention).*

Like NPs, Physician Assistants (PAs), diagnose and manage illnesses and treatment plans, prescribe medications, counsel on preventative care and patients’ overall health, and provide services like physical examinations and other medical procedures. They might assist in surgeries, do clinical research, and make rounds in hospitals and nursing homes.**

How do Jobs Differ Between Nurse Practitioners and Physician Assistants?

What are the Differences Between These Two Career Paths?

Both Nurse Practitioners and Physician Assistants perform their duties and practice autonomously, even if under a collaborative agreement with a Doctor of Medicine (MD). How about the differences? Nurse Journal describes them pretty simply:

• Most PAs work in collaboration with a designated Doctor of Medicine as required by most states’ laws, where they work on a team alongside MDs and other health care professionals. They might also work for standalone PA-led clinics.

• In about half the states, NPs are required to maintain collaborative agreements, wherein NPs work autonomously without direct supervision. In the other half of states, laws grant NPs total freedom to practice independently to the full extent of their education and training (without a collaborative agreement with an MD). NPs work frequently establish independent NP-led clinics and partner practices.

• NPs receive training in accordance with the nursing model.

• PAs receive training more in line with the medical model.

• NPs choose a specific patient population in their graduate education program as their primary specialty (more about that below).

• PAs often specialize in a particular area of medicine, such as emergency or internal medicine.

How does Education Differ Between Nurse Practitioners and Physician Assistants?

Educational Differences – As mentioned above, education requirements of PAs and NPs are different.

The American Academy of Physician Assistants further explains it this way: PAs are educated in and trained to practice general medicine, whereas NPs are trained in the advanced practice of nursing and must choose a population focus when pursuing their education (e.g. pediatric nurse practitioner or family nurse practitioner).

Physician Assistants – Most students who go into a PA program hold bachelor’s degrees and have three years of health care experience. Most PA programs have prerequisites including chemistry, physiology, anatomy, microbiology, and biology. After graduating from an accredited PA program (about three years) and earning a master’s degree that includes 2,000 hours of clinical rotations, one must then take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) administered by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) and obtain state licensure.

Nurse Practitioner – Those who go into an NP program typically hold a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), although many colleges offer bridge programs for nurses with associate degrees only. To earn the master’s degree to become a Nurse Practitioner, students complete between 400 and 1,000 clinical hours, earn professional certification in a specific patient population focus, and get state Advanced Practice Registered Nurse licensure.

Nurse Practitioner: The Perfect Career Path for a Registered Nurse

If you enjoy being a Registered Nurse and providing care to patients and want to further your career options, boost your earning potential, and have greater autonomy in your job, consider the Nurse Practitioner pathway.

American Sentinel University offers two Nurse Practitioner specialty tracks, Adult Gerontology Primary Care NP and Family NP. Want to learn more? Browse program details online, where you can also reserve your seat for our next Nurse Practitioner Open House.

*American Association of Nurse Practitioners
**American Academy of Physician Assistants
Learn more about becoming a Nurse Practitioner at nursejournal.org.