Nurse Practitioners, Physician Assistants and Doctors - What's the Difference?

By Rachel Walden — October 2, 2012

The United States has had a shortage of primary care providers for quite a while, and the doctor shortage is not expected to ease up anytime soon, with more people gaining access to health coverage along with the increased health needs of aging Baby Boomers.

In an attempt to address this shortage, the Affordable Care Act includes provisions to train more primary care providers — including nurse practitioners (NP) and physician assistants (PA).

Many of us may have encountered an NP or PA at a Planned Parenthood or other women’s health clinic. Nurse practitioners typically have a master’s degree in nursing plus specialty certification, while physician assistants graduate from a 2- to 3- year physician assistant education program. Both NPs and PAs may specialize in areas such as family medicine, women’s health, pediatrics, emergency care, or other areas.

Michelle Andrews of Kaiser Health News provides a quick, basic overview of how NPs and MDs compare in the video below:

The American Academy of Nurse Practitioners offers a more detailed explanation of what NPs do:

NPs provide a variety of critical health services, including evaluating patients, making diagnoses, ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests, writing prescriptions, and managing acute and chronic health conditions—including the oversight of patients with multiple and complex chronic illness. NPs are providers of choice for millions of individuals and families. They are especially educated and prepared to care for vulnerable populations such as the elderly, the medically underserved, and those who live in rural areas that have more acutely experienced the primary care provider shortage.

Physician Assistants in practice do much the same work as nurse practitioners, as the American Academy of Physician Assistants explains:

PAs perform physical examinations, diagnose and treat illnesses, order and interpret lab tests, perform procedures, assist in surgery, provide patient education and counseling and make rounds in hospitals and nursing homes. All 50 states and the District of Columbia allow PAs to practice and prescribe medications […]  PAs deliver high-quality care, and research shows that patients are just as satisfied with PA-provided care as they are with physician care.

So if you visit a primary care or women’s health clinic, a walk-in clinic, or other medical office, you might just find yourself in the care of a nurse practitioner or a physician assistant — and now you’ll know a bit more about their education and role.

2 responses to “Nurse Practitioners, Physician Assistants and Doctors – What’s the Difference?”

  1. Please correct the above mis-information about Physician Assistants. Most Physician Assistants have a masters degree also and most finish a 4 year college degree THEN do a 2-3 year PA program. I know because I’ve been a PA for 31 years and have taught in both PA and NP programs. You make it sound like a PA comes out of high school and does 2-3 years of college and then is a PA. This mis-information undermines our patient’s trust in our abilities. Thanks

  2. Thanks for your comment, Michael – I could see how someone could read the sentence that way.

    For other readers, here are a couple of links on PA education (including the APA link from the original post) that explain more about how PAs are educated, including college.

    What is a PA?

    Physician Assistant Education-Preparing for Excellence

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