There are plenty of rewarding career paths in the healthcare field. For medical students who don’t want to become doctors, nurse practitioners (NP) and physician assistants (PA) are great options.
Both perform similar functions like diagnosing illnesses and prescribing medications. However, some notable differences exist, such as how they approach patient care. Nursing practitioners specialize in caring for a certain population of patients. Physician assistants focus on a specific type of medicine.
This guide unpacks the differences between NPs and PAs to help you decide which career path best aligns with your goals and interests.
Overview of a Nurse Practioner
Nurse practitioners examine patients, diagnose illnesses, provide treatment, and prescribe medication. They primarily focus on a specific population of people. Their typical specialties include:
- Emergency care
- Geriatric care
- Women’s care
- Mental health
- Patients with chronic conditions
Nurse practitioners focus on holistic care. Thus, they emphasize the patient’s emotional, mental, and physical needs.
Overview of a Physician Assistant
Physician assistants are practitioners that work under a physician’s supervision. They are tasked with examining and diagnosing patients, prescribing medicine, and treating patients. PAs can work in all areas of medicine, including family medicine, primary care, psychiatry, and emergency medicine.
Pros of Being a Nurse Practioner
Here are a few advantages of being a nurse practitioner:
Ability to Practice Independently
Depending on where you live, nurse practitioners have varying levels of autonomy based on the NP practice regulations. Full practice autonomy lets NPs perform functions without collaborating with other medical professionals. In addition, they can run their own clinic, similar to a physician. Currently, 24 states approve full practice autonomy of nurse practitioners.
Get Paid Well
One of the main benefits of becoming a nurse practitioner is the salary. NPs have an average salary of $123,780 annually, which is well above what most healthcare jobs pay.
The income allows NPs to live comfortably anywhere in the US without the additional education and training that a doctor needs.
More Job Positions Available
Both careers are growing in demand. However, nurse practitioners are outpacing physician assistants in the number of jobs available. In 2020, NPs had a total of 271,900 jobs available and were expected to grow by 45%.
PAs have 129,400 jobs available and has an expected growth rate of 31%. Thus, it’ll likely be easier to land a job as a nurse practitioner.
Flexibility in Work Hours
Depending on the environment they work in, NPs have the opportunity to choose how long their shifts are. In emergency rooms that operate 24 hours, these shifts can run 12 hours.
Nurse practitioners that work three twelve-hour shift workdays likely have the other weekdays off. This offers a lot of time off from work and flexibility to schedule your free time. It also offers a good work-life balance.
PA’s are more likely to stick to a 9 to 5 schedule, although some may work even longer.
Opportunity for Telehealth
Telehealth is increasingly becoming a prominent part of healthcare. Many nurse practitioners may be asked to conduct telehealth visits with their patients. If you have constraints such as children or have to care for a family member, working from home as a nurse can be incredibly beneficial.
Cons of Being a Nurse Practioner
Despite the many benefits, there are some drawbacks to being an NP.
Not Flexible In Changing Specializations
Nurse practitioners specialize in nursing, while physician assistants focus on general medicine.
NPs specialize in a few areas like mental health, pediatrics, gerontology, and women’s health. However, due to their specific training in nursing, it’s difficult to change fields during your career path.
Very Intensive Renewal Requirements
Both professions require recertification. However, the process for NPs is much more rigorous. The NP recertification requires 1,000 clinical hours in the certified specialty and must be renewed every two years. In comparison, PAs only need 100 continuing education hours and only need to pass the recertification exam every ten years.
Pros of Being a Physician Assistant
Being a PA is very rewarding, especially considering the many perks it offers:
Flexibility to Change Specialties
Physician assistants have a more generalized education. As a result, they can specialize in areas such as orthopedics, emergency medicine, and general surgery.
One of the main benefits of becoming a PA is that it’s easy to switch from one specialty to another without needing a new certification. About 6-7% of PAs change their specialties every year. Having the option to change specialties if you don’t enjoy a specific field can mitigate burnout or feelings of overwhelming.
Physician assistants make about the same as nurse practitioners. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, they make an average of $121,530. Like NPs, they can live off a good salary that affords them a comfortable lifestyle.
Good Work-Life Balance
PA’s are less likely to be on call 24/7, allowing time for you to relax, have hobbies or spend time with family. While there are more demanding specialties, you can enjoy your days off without worrying about work.
Cons of Being a Physician Assistant
Here are some of the disadvantages of becoming a PA.
Physician Assistants Can’t Operate Their Own Practice.
Unlike NPs, PAs must work under strict delegation and supervision of a physician. They often don’t take on acute or complex medical cases, and they don’t perform surgeries.
While it’s not a deal-breaker for many physician assistants, some people may want to run their own practice someday. If so, NPs offer the flexibility to have full autonomy in how they operate and run their business.
More Clinical Hours are Required
Physician assistants must complete about 2,000 clinical hours; nurse practitioners may need as little as 750 hours.
This varies depending on the specialty, but PAs generally need more clinical experience. Both professions are quite intensive. Thus, you’ll want to research the exact requirements before going through the education and training process.
Colin is a healthcare writer who focuses on generating impactful content for young med
students. Particularly, he specializes in the finances and money-making opportunities that a
career in the medical field can provide.
As a once-struggling college student, he now has built a career from freelance writing and other
side hustles. Hailing from Chicago, he loves writing, reading, and weight lifting.
His goal is to become a world-class copywriter, using his creativity and words to inspire others
to improve their lives.