The Differences between Physician Assistants and Nurse Practitioners

While both Physician Assistants and Nurse Practitioners are both noble professions dedicated to the care and welfare of their patients, there are a wealth of differences in education, licensing, responsibilities and philosophy. Physician Assistants are licensed medical professionals who may work independently of the lead physician, while Nurse Practitioners are well trained, but not necessarily licensed caregivers, who must work under the close supervision of the attending doctor.

Contrasts in Academic Preparation

The differences between these two professions begin at the educational level. Physician Assistants must attend a PA program following graduation with a Bachelor’s degree. These Master’s level programs are extremely rigorous and are modeled on the curriculum found in medical schools. In fact, many of the courses like dermatology, hematology and psychiatry are found in both medical schools and Physician Assistant programs, although there is a less in-depth study of these subjects in PA programs. Although the level of comprehensiveness differs between medical schools and PA programs, they are both focused on the medical science.

Nursing programs do provide a strong medical background for Nurse Practitioners, but they are more focused on natural, behavioral and humanistic sciences. This emphasis upon the state of the patient rather than the treatment of the underlying medical affliction reflects a historical origin in which Nurse Practitioners were utilized to ease the discomfort of the ill or injured. Nurse Practitioners do, however, complete a Master’s degree program like Physician Assistants.

Differences in Clinical Preparation

In addition to differences in classroom instruction, there are also many differences in the clinical preparation that Physician Assistants and Nurse Practitioners receive. While Nurse Practitioners may obtain from 500 to 700 hours of experience in a clinic learning about diagnostic techniques, common medical procedures and case management, Physician Assistants are required to spend almost 2,000 hours in a clinical environment prior to licensing.

Furthermore, while Nurse Practitioners are expected to choose a specialty like pediatrics, acute care or oncology in which they can devote their clinical preparation, Physician Assistants are expected to rotate through a wide variety of medical specialties. Ultimately, the difference in clinical preparation provides PAs with more freedom to choose the type of medical practice they wish to join because they already possess a broader based experience, while NPs are more limited to their chosen specialty.

Certification and Licensing

There are also significant differences in the certification and licensing of these two professions. Physician Assistants must be nationally certified to practice and are nationally certified by a single authoritative body, the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. The NCCPA only certifies those who have taken the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam and passed. Nurses, on the other hand, are not required to pass a national certifying exam, although doing so will permit them advanced credentials.

The state licensing procedures for each profession are slightly different. PAs must submit proof that they have passed the PANCE and completed all educational and clinical prerequisites. Nurse Practitioners typically only need to provide proof that they graduated from a nursing program. Additionally, PAs must complete 100 hours of continuing medical education hours every two years an pass a recertification exam every six years, while NPs need only complete 75 continuing education units every five to six years.

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