Nurse Practitioner vs Physician Assistant: What’s the Difference?

Nurse looking after a patient

There’s a reason why healthcare jobs are so in demand: you can make a real difference in people’s lives all while working in an interesting and well-paid role.

Nurse Practitioner and Physician Assistant are two lucrative career paths gaining in popularity, but they are often misunderstood. So how do these two roles differ? This article will break down the key differences between Nurse Practitioners and Physician Assistants.

Nurse Practitioner vs Physician Assistant At A Glance

Short on time? Here’s a quick summary:

Nurse Practitioner:

  • Can make diagnoses, treat illness, and prescribe medication
  • Makes slightly less than Physician Assistants on average
  • Typically acts as a secondary care provider
  • Requires a Master Degree, and program costs may be cheaper than Physician Assistant

Physician Assistant:

  • Can make diagnoses, treat illness, and prescribe medication
  • Makes slightly more than Nurse Practitioners on average
  • May act as a primary care provider
  • Requires a Master Degree, and program costs may be higher than Nurse Practitioner

What’s the Difference Between A Nurse Practitioner And Physician Assistant?

Approach to Care

Unsurprisingly, Nurse Practitioners take a nursing approach to healthcare. That means a holistic, patient-centered approach that is focused on a type of person rather than a type of medicine. Nurse Practitioners’ practice focuses on patient education, public health, and ongoing support.

Physician Assistants are educated in the medical model rather than a nursing model. They learn disease prevention and treatment management and may specialize in certain types of medicine like emergency care, dermatology, or gastroenterology. Their focus may be less holistic and more focused on the medical and biological aspects of health.

Work Environment

Nurse Practitioners and Physician Assistants are collaborative professionals that work in tandem with other healthcare providers to offer the best care possible to patients. Both roles provide advanced care to diverse patients, and, in certain provinces, can work independently of physicians.

Nurse Practitioners work in varied clinical settings including:

  • Hospitals
  • Ambulatory care centers
  • Outpatient facilities
  • Long-term care facilities
  • Nursing homes
  • Private homes
  • Hospice centers
  • Research agencies
  • Private clinics

Physician Assistants work in:

  • Physician offices
  • Hospitals
  • Emergency medicine centers
  • Outpatient care centers
  • Urgent care centers
  • Surgery clinics
  • Community health agencies
  • Nurse-managed medical centers
  • Psychiatric hospitals and more

Education Programs

The education programs of these two career paths are similar. While the content differs, Nurse Practitioner and Physician Assistant both require a Master’s Degree. The university programs are about the same length, typically taking 2-3 years depending on the program. Both curricula typically contain a mix of classroom and clinical practice hours.

Nurse Practitioners must have a Registered Nursing Bachelor’s Degree as well as many hours of clinical experience to be admitted. However, the program costs for Nurse Practitioner is often a bit cheaper than that of a Physician Assistant. Often the lecture portion is conducted online, lowering program costs.

The average cost for Nurse Practitioner schooling in the USA is between $35,000 and $70,000 while the cost of the Physician Assistant program is between $60,000 to $90,000.

Scope of Practice

As a general rule, Nurse Practitioners often provide specialized care to particular demographics of people (for instance, outpatient pediatric services), and Physician Assistants may be broader.

However, some Physician Assistants are trained in specialty surgery assistance, whereas Nurse Practitioners’ education may be more focused on ongoing healthcare.

In many provinces, Nurse Practitioners and Physician Assistants have full practice authority, meaning they aren’t required to work under the supervision of a physician. In these provinces, they are also allowed to open their own private clinics.

In some provinces Nurse Practitioners have restricted practice, meaning a doctor is required to sign off on some patient care decisions and they are unable to open their own clinics. However, Nurse Practitioners are fully able to write prescriptions and administer controlled substances, unlike Registered Nurses.

Nurse Practitioners offer patient education, supportive care, and patient referrals. They may collaborate with other community health care providers as well as patient family members. Their practice tends to focus more on disease prevention and health education, and while Physician Assistants do this as well, their practice may focus more on disease treatment.

Nurse Practitioners and Physician Assistants share these responsibilities:

  • Prescribe medications and controlled substances
  • Examine patients
  • Make diagnoses
  • Order and interpret laboratory tests
  • Take patient histories
  • Develop and administer treatment plans
  • Perform bedside procedures
  • Educate patients and families on illness prevention and treatment
  • Monitor patients’ ongoing progress
  • Take continuing education courses
  • Engage in community outreach
  • Prescribe medical supplies
  • Administer pharmacotherapy
  • Promote public wellness
  • Manage inpatients
  • Chronic illness management education
  • Practice medicine without a physician in certain provinces
  • Make specialist physician referrals
  • Roster and manage patients
  • Admit to long-term care facilities
  • Can support healthcare providers in every specialty

However, a Physician Assistant may have these separate duties:

  • May act as a primary care provider
  • Assists in surgery
  • Conducts pre-employment and worker compensation examinations


Strains on the healthcare system have increased the demand for highly-trained healthcare professionals. And ultimately, both Nurse Practitioner and Physician Assistant are two rewarding and lucrative career paths.

Both are highly qualified healthcare experts which can offer diagnoses and treatment without the presence of physicians in some provinces. Therefore, they offer cost-effective medical care that eases the burden on our medical system.

If you are looking for a healthcare career to treat a particular set of conditions, a Physician Assistant may be the role for you.

On the other hand, if you are interested in working with a specific demographic of people, Nurse Practitioner may be a better fit. Considering which of the two healthcare philosophies aligns more with you is the best way to determine which career path is the best fit.

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Avlin is passionate about helping aspirants become better personal support workers. He is an entrepreneur and runs a clinic in Toronto.

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