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Difference Between a Physician Assistant and a Nurse Practitioner

Both physician assistants (PA) and nurse practitioners (NP) are advanced practice providers who often function in similar roles. When jobs are advertised for advanced practice providers, the posting will often invite PAs and NPs to apply for the open position. They share some similarities, but there are several key differences that distinguish the two.


Both PAs and NPs are required to pass a national certification exam after completion of their program. Nurse practitioners are employed in all 50 states, in every specialty, for in-patient and out-patient settings. Physician assistants are utilized mostly in those states where there are PA degree programs.

A nurse practice act that governs PAs and NPs can vary from state to state. An NP is considered an independent practitioner, although some states require an NP to have written collaborative agreement to practice or impose prescribing limits. PAs are usually employed by a health system or a physician, as a licensed physician must supervise the work of a PA. Many hospitals require for a PA's charts to be co-signed by a physician.

Physician Assistant

Physician assistant programs are typically graduate level and similar to medical education; the biologic basis of disease forms the foundation. Most PA programs do not require any medical experience to apply. There is usually 2,000-plus hours of clinical education required before completing the program. This would make it difficult--if not impossible--for a student in a PA program to work while attending school and engaging in clinical practicum experiences. To learn more about the PA profession, visit the AAPA website, the professional practice association for this profession.

Nurse Practitioner

Nurse practitioner programs are master's- or doctoral-level education; an applicant must have a bachelor's degree in nursing to apply. Most graduate programs require nurses have nursing experience, usually a minimum of one year post-licensure. Nurse practitioner programs typically have between 500 and 700 clinical practicum hours. Nurses in NP education programs typically work while continuing their clinical education and completing coursework. The American Academy of Nurse Practitioners supports the NP profession in the United States and can be accessed on the AANP website.

Discover A Top-Ranked Nurse Practitioner Program

Saint Xavier University provides a nurse practitioner program with a family specialty. Through the Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) program, you can work toward a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree or a post-graduate certificate. Both options allow you to take your career to a new level within the complex field of health care!