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The Differences Between Nurse Practitioners and Physician Assistants

June 24, 2019 BY Alanna Moriarty

The Differences Between Nurse Practitioners and Physician Assistants

Nurse practitioners (NPs) and physician assistants (PAs) are mid-level medical practitioners, diagnosing patients and prescribing medications like physicians at a lower cost to patients. Both NPs and PAs occupy similar spaces in the healthcare field, but approach patient care in different ways. Similarly, while both providers can choose specialties, they do not often overlap.

According to Definitive Healthcare's physicians platform, there are more than 180,000 practicing NPs and 99,000 practicing PAs in the U.S. It can be difficult to distinguish the differences between these two practitioners, and in which settings each would best address patient care. We've established the primary differences between nurse practitioners and physician assistants to help you understand how each approaches patient health and wellness.

Nurse practitioners (NPs)

Nurse practitioners approach healthcare provision from a patient-focused perspective. Training for NPs is centered around treating a patient holistically, addressing mental and environmental wellness in conjunction with physical health. Typically, NPs emphasize preventative care as much as reactive treatment, including disease intervention and education around health and wellness initiatives. 

Like physicians, nurse practitioners are responsible for patient assessment, diagnosis, and prescribing treatment. NPs are trained to serve specific populations, catering to their unique needs -- often without direct physician oversight. Some common specialties for NPs include geriatrics, internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, and pediatrics. 

Compensation and job growth

All NPs must earn a master's degree or doctorate of nursing practice (DNP) for accreditation, which takes between 6 and 8 years. While a DNP is recommended, many state credentialing organizations only require a master's. In addition, NPs face re-certification at least every five years, either through an exam or the combination of 1,000 clinical hours and 50-75 continuing education credits.

For the 180,000 NP's currently working in the U.S., the average annual wage is over $107,000, with an expected growth rate of 36 percent between 2016 and 2026.

Top 10 NP Specialties 

Fig 1 Nurse practitioner (NP) specialty intelligence is from Definitive Healthcare's Physicians platform. This chart does not include NPs with no reported specialty. 

Physician assistants (PAs)

Physician assistants (PAs) perform many of the same care delivery tasks as NPs, with many overlapping responsibilities. The primary differentiator is the approach these providers take. While NPs take a patient-centered, holistic approach to healthcare provision, PAs focus on the biologic and pathologic components of health. Rather than addressing a patient's lifestyle and wellness education like NPs, PAs are principally responsible for patient assessment, diagnosis, and prescribing treatment for acute care episodes.

Though they can choose a specialty or focus area, PAs are typically generalists. This allows them to address a wide patient population, providing care without direct oversight from a physician. Some PAs do choose a specialty, such as family medicine, general surgery, and emergency medicine. PAs are versatile providers, and work in a variety of care centers, including hospitals, independent offices, skilled nursing facilities, and others.

Compensation and job growth

All physician assistance must earn a master's degree, with many programs also recommending applicants hold an RN license. The program generally takes about 6 years to complete, and requires students to complete 1,000 instruction hours and 2,000 clinical hours. PAs face two types of re-certification: completing 100 hours of continuing education every two years and an exam every six years.

For the 99,000 practicing PAs in the U.S., the average annual wage is over $104,000, with an expected growth rate of 37 percent between 2016 and 2026.

Top 10 PA Specialties 

Physicians Assistant Chart

Fig 2 Physician assistant (PA) specialty intelligence is from Definitive Healthcare's Physicians platform. This chart does not include PAs with no reported specialty. 

Differences between NPs and PAs

  Nurse Practitioner (NP) Physician Assistant (PA)
Patient assessment, diagnosis, and treatment
Patient-focused  
Illness-focused  
Concentration and specialties   
Generalist  
Job growth rate of >35%
Requires master's degree

Fig 3 While both NPs and PAs occupy similar spaces in the healthcare provider market, there are a few key differences in how each approaches patient assessment and treatment.

Learn More

Finding the right provider to fit your needs can feel impossible -- particularly in the midst of a shortage. Do you have all the intelligence you need to recruit and place physicians and allied care professionals?

Definitive Healthcare gives you the full picture of the healthcare provider market with proprietary insights on practitioners and  care facilities across the U.S.

  • Segment lists of providers by diagnosis and procedure codes, region, specialty, and more
  • Analyze affiliations and predicted employment
  • Identify which providers participate in clinical trials

staffing-dash-newengland

Fig 3 A snapshot of two capabilities in the Definitive Healthcare staffing dashboard, available in our DHC Visuals platform.

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