Physician assistant Vs. Nurse practitioner: What’s the difference?

Another common misconception about our profession as a PA is that the general population believes we are nurses, nurses aides, medical assistants, etc.   We’d like to shed some light on the topic. 

The question gets brought up at three distinct times in your career.  First when you are researching both of the roles and determining which may be a fit for you.  The second is likely going to be your PA school interview.  It’s almost a guarantee that this question will be asked. And then again by almost every other patient you encounter, better to have some background knowledge than to fumble around with answers 😉

The differences:

Nurse Practitioners:  The education a NP receives is that of a nursing model where they concentrate on the impact of the diagnosis and treatment on the patient. Ergo they focus on disease prevention and health education.  The undergraduate studies focus on becoming a registered nurse prior to a Master’s which is now trending towards a Doctorate program. Nurse practitioners do not typically have surgical rotations during school.  Instead they choose a focus such as primary care (adult/geriatric vs pediatrics), women’s health or mental health and that is the track they follow through their education. One major difference is that Nurse Practitioners in certain states (not Florida where we currently practice) can work without a supervising physician which is called FPA or full practice authority and may work in stand-alone clinics.  They are often used in quick care type clinics that you see in pharmacies or grocery stores.

Physician Assistants:  The PA education stems from the medical model or disease-centered model and focus on diagnosis, testing, and treatment.  We can have a Bachelor’s degree in any study as long as we have the science pre-requisite courses completed.  The traditional route is approximately 28-months to obtain a Master’s degree.  There has been debate about whether or not to make our degree a doctorate degree, but honestly, think how confusing that would be “Dr. Physician Assistant ____ (Insert last name).”  You tend to see PAs in more specialized surgical fields but they are also prevalent in the primary care as well.

The similarities:

Both professionals can prescribe medications, treat patients, and make diagnoses.  We are able to apply to most of the same job postings that are available. The salary remains within a few thousand dollars of each other for primary fields. For both, the scope of the practice does vary depending on state.

Let’s think about how a NP would approach a fracture compared to a PA.  The PA will be focused more on the importance of splinting and proper bone healing whereas the NP will take extra precaution to make sure their home health goals will be met for the patient to care for themselves to prevent re-injury or new injury.  It all comes down to the variation in approach among the two providers and which fits your learning style and goals as a provider.

There is currently a huge debate as to whether we should change our names to something other than “PA” or “physician assistant.”  How do you feel about the term “mid-level practitioners?” or “advanced care providers?”

Katie’s take on a name change:  For the last twelve years, I’ve wanted to be a “PA.”  I feel so blessed that I finally reached my goal and I am so proud to be a PA!   PAs took this long to get to where we are in this profession, people are finally understanding our role in the medical profession, and I feel that it would cause even more confusion.   More often in the ED setting I hear the term “mid-level provider or practitioner” used.  I feel that we as PAs provide high level of care, just as a physician does and we should just be called “PA” or “physician assistant.”

Emily’s take on a name change:  I completely agree with Katie.  My previous career in Athletic Training went through a similar scenario of possibly changing the name because we were confused with personal trainers.  It also was a relatively new field of medicine like how the PA field is.  I think it would be overall too confusing to change the name of either profession now that the general population is starting to understand who we are and what we do.  My company currently uses the term ACP or, advanced care provider, which groups together Nurse Practitioners and Physician Assistants.  I don’t mind the term but it doesn’t give meaning to what we do or explain the differences between the two professions.  I, like Katie, would prefer to simply be called a “PA” or “Physician Assistant” and if that means I have to continue to explain what I do, I’m fine with that :D. Persistence and explanation is the key for the general population to understand who we are!

What is your opinion?  Should we leave our names be or make a change? Comment below or send us an email!

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