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What’s the difference between Physician Assistants and Nurse Practitioners?

nurse practitionersphysician assistantsHealth & Wellness • 5 min read • Jul 10, 2015 12:00:00 AM • Written by: Brad Ranks


Because of the complex nature of our modern medical system, you may get confused at times trying to distinguish between all of the different types of medical professionals you meet during treatment. Two common types of medical professionals you’ve probably heard of and you’re likely to encounter when seeking care are physician assistants (PAs) and nurse practitioners (NPs). But, do you know what the differences are between the two?

When dealing with your health and wellness it’s good to know exactly what all of those titles actually mean, the possible differences between different types of medical professionals you’re likely to come in contact with during treatment, and how each of these different types of medical professionals can impact your medical care.


The two medical professionals, PAs and NPs, are similar in many ways. Most PAs have a master’s degree while most NPs hold either a master’s or doctorate degree. Both NPs and PAs work in a variety of settings in both hospitals and clinics and both work in rural and urban areas. Additionally PAs and NPs both care for a variety of conditions and ailments, treat illnesses, provide patient teaching, can prescribe medications, and in many instances, one or the other often acts as a primary care provider.

But, despite their similarities, there are also some distinct differences.

The PA profession was introduced in the mid 1960’s at Duke University by Dr. Eugene Stead and Dr. William Anlyan. Together, the two established a 24-month PA program based on the fast-track medical training doctors received during World War II. The NP profession can be informally traced back to the 1930’s when nurses in the Frontier Nursing Service provided medical care to rural Appalachian residents. With little supervision by MDs, the NP profession fully emerged in the 1960’s due to a shortage of primary care physicians at the time. Dr. Loretta Ford and Dr. Henry Silver developed the first NP program at the University of Colorado in 1965.

PAs generally follow a medical education model for training and attend programs that focus primarily on the medical aspects of health care. Also, while PAs are trained to be general practitioners, many times they may specialize in a particular area of medicine, including primary care, pediatrics, or even general surgical care. And, approximately 9 – 15 months of a PA’s training occurs in supervised clinical settings, according to the Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA) and the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA). PAs provide a range of diagnostic and therapeutic services, which vary by practice setting. These include physical examination, diagnosing and treating illnesses, ordering and interpreting tests, counseling on preventative healthcare, assisting in surgery, writing prescriptions, education, research, and administrative services.

NPs on the other hand, average approximately 10 years of practical nursing experience before attempting to become an NP, according to the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners (AANP). NPs must hold a nursing degree to qualify for the graduate program, as well as, professional nursing experience prior to entering the NP program. Also, according to the AANP, NP students who enter an NP program receive their training from other licensed NPs. Like PAs, NPs can practice in a variety of specialty areas. An NP can do all of the things that RNs do, including recording medical histories, examining patients, providing treatment, and assisting in the administration of diagnostic tests, but NPs can also order diagnostic tests and interpret such test results. NP practice emphasizes a holistic approach to patient care with particular attention to disease prevention, health promotion, and risk reduction.

Despite some differences in how each practitioner is trained and educated, and some difference in the level of autonomy each may possess, both NPs and PAs are licensed and accredited by formally sanctioned examination. Both NPs and PAs practice in all 50 states, both have prescriptive rights in all 50 states, and, practice for both PAs and NPs is regulated on the state level with some practice limitations varying from state to state. For example, while some states do not require an NP to have a collaborative relationship with a physician or other health care providers, other states do have some requirements for a degree of collaborative agreement between physician and NP to be in place. In the case of PAs, a physician is generally the head of the practice and the PA cannot practice without the physician, but there is still a great deal of autonomy for the PA within that setting.

If you have additional questions, you can learn more about the differences and similarities of physician assistants PAs, nurse practitioners NPs, and various other medical practitioners the next time you visit your doctor. Also, remember you can take advantage of MeMD to answer many of your health related questions without having to go to the doctor’s office; which saves you time and can help improve your overall health and wellness.


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Brad Ranks