CHHS Student Success Center

Nurse Practitioner and Physician Assistant: What's the Difference?

One of the main differences between the two occupations is the training involved. While nurse practitioners go to nursing schools, physician assistants attend medical school, so consequently they emerge with different viewpoints regarding medicine. While nursing school emphasizes the patient, medical school emphasizes the pathology; nurse practitioners therefore follow a patient-centered model, while physician assistants adhere to a disease-centered model.

This also means impacts specialties, which follow either the patient (in the case of the nurse practitioner) or the type of medicine (as with the physician assistant). While a nurse practitioner might specialize in pediatrics, geriatrics or women’s health, for instance, the physician assistant may focus on emergency medicine, family practice or internal medicine.

Job Basics

Common Duties:

PA: Physician assistants may diagnose patients for illness and injury, perform examinations and provide treatment plans. The role of the physician assistant is to perform services the physician himself might provide, under the supervision of that physician.

NP: Nurse practitioners also diagnose and treat various illnesses and injuries, though they focus on promoting health and preventing disease and illness in the first place. In some cases they can prescribe medication.

Practice Settings:

PA: Because physician assistants work under physicians and surgeons, they typically work in doctors’ offices and hospitals, and other healthcare settings.

NP: Nurse practitioners work in a wide variety of settings, including hospitals, offices, clinics, schools, camps and nursing care facilities.


PA: Physician assistants can specialize in many areas. Examples include dermatology, urgent care, emergency medicine or surgery.

NP: Nurse practitioners can choose from a wide variety of specialties, which normally focus on populations. Examples include geriatric, pediatric and family medicine.


PA: Physician assistants usually work full-time under a practicing surgeon or physician, and are unable to practice on their own.

NP: Unlike physician assistants, nurse practitioners are able to operate independently in some states. However, most still work within larger healthcare settings or as part of a healthcare team.

Education & Programs


PA: Most physician assistant positions require candidates to possess a master’s degree.

NP: A master’s degree is required to practice in any state. However, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing has suggested that in future, nurse practitioners receive the Doctor of Nursing Practice, or DNP, but this has not yet happened.


PA: Because physician assistants are trained in general medicine so that they can serve wide subsections of the population, they require lots of education. Usually programs require 1,000 classroom hours and 2,000 or more hours in a clinical setting.

NP: Programs for nurse practitioners are usually shorter than those for physician assistants. They typically require nurse practitioners students choose a specialty and complete between 500 classroom and 500-700 clinical hours.

Continuing Education:

PA: Physician assistants must complete and 100 credit hours every 2 years and log their time officially through the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. Every 6 years they must pass an exam, though this is moving to a 10-year cycle.

NP: Nurse practitioners must complete 75 to 150 continuing education credits and log 1,000 clinical hours every 5 years, or they can take a test instead.