As the need for health care has expanded, there has been an increase in demand for employees and professionals in the medical field. Therefore, there are a variety of health care jobs and careers. Two key positions in the health care field that have contributed to addressing the looming physician gap are Physician Assistants and Nurse Practitioners. Because both job descriptions have notable similarities, there can be some confusion between the differences in purpose and the roles between a Physician Assistant and Nurse Practitioner. However, there are notable differences.
In California, both Physician Assistants and Nurse Practitioners are regulated according to state regulations. The main difference between a Physician Assistant and Nurse Practitioner is the education received. Physician Assistants are trained more similarly to that of a Physician where a Nurse Practitioner skills are advanced under the nursing-centric education model. Physician Assistants get extensive training in treatment and diagnosing ailments for patients and conversely, the nursing-centric education model that Nurse Practitioners are exposed to focuses on a holistic approach to management of patients.
A Physician Assistant is a medical professional who has been authorized to practice medicine. Specifically, a Physician Assistant can conduct physical examinations, diagnose patients, provide treatment including setting broken bones, obtain medical histories, perform procedures, assist in surgery, and make regular rounds in hospitals and nursing homes. Physician Assistants must be certified to practice. Generally, masters programs for Physician Assistants are modeled on the medical school curriculum combining both classroom lectures and clinical training. Physician Assistants must be supervised by a Physician as established by Title 16 of the California Code of Regulations Section 1399.545. Moreover, a Physician Assistant may only provide medical services in which they are competent to perform and which are consistent with their education (Cal. Code Regs. tit. 16, § 1399.540).
On the other hand, a Nurse Practitioner is a registered nurse with an advanced education—usually a masters degree in nursing. A Nurse Practitioner specializes in disease prevention, promotion of health and education, and diagnosis and management of chronic diseases. Nurse Practitioners utilize a holistic approach to management of patients and overall care. Title 22 of the California Code of Regulation Section 51170.3 requires that Nurse Practitioners be licensed and certified under the Board of Registered Nursing. Moreover, Nurse Practitioners can further specialize and hold themselves out as family or pediatric Nurse Practitioners (Cal. Code Regs. tit. 22, § 51170.3). Unlike that of a Physician Assistant, in California, Nurse Practitioners do not need to be under direct supervision of a Physician.
As the demand for medical treatment grows, the importance of mid-level practitioners including Physician Assistants and Nurse Practitioners increases. It is apparent that there are overlapping skills between the two careers, however, a Physician Assistant concentrates on medical treatment whereas a Nurse Practitioner provides overall care management for patients.