Physician Assistants vs Nurse Practitioners
On the surface, the role of a physician assistant and a nurse practitioner may seem identical. This is not surprising, as they both share similar responsibilities and are implemented to extend the reach of doctors in many medical settings.
Not many people are legally permitted to prescribe drugs to patients. Doctors, physician assistants and nurse practitioners are among the elite with the authority to determine the best pharmaceutical to ease a patient’s ills, while being aware of the risk of interaction with other drugs or herbs and the potential for overdose and abuse.
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Nurse practitioners are nurses who have studied advance nursing practice and theory with anywhere from 500 to 800 hours of post-classroom clinical training. Typically, a healthcare professional with prior work experience and a bachelor’s degree may continue toward a nurse practitioner or physician assistant degree. So, for a practicing nurse, either working towards a nurse practitioner degree or a physician assistant degree is a viable option. Generally, a master’s degree is required for either profession.
Physician assistants attend specialty programs in medical schools and spend about 1,000 hours in class and twice as much time gaining clinical experience. Nurse practitioners attend programs in nursing schools and spend about 500 hours in class and the same or slightly more in a clinical environment. Physician assistants learn to become medical generalists and sometimes continue learning specialty branches of medicine. Physician assistants focus on procedures and skills associated with diagnosis, treatment and performing surgery. This is probably the greatest single difference between the two professions. Surgical nurses assist in surgeries but do not “call the shots.” Physician assistants may, at the supervising doctor’s discretion, take charge of an operation (although the doctor would almost certainly be present). Nursing school curricula do not teach surgery techniques. Nurse practitioners focus on diagnosis, treatment and prevention, with little focus on surgery. Both professions learn how to educate patients for better health maintenance.
The philosophy behind a nurse practitioner education is biopsychosocial and focuses on collaboration with doctors. The physician assistant learns to work as part of a team of doctors and other physician assistants in a disease-centered medical model. In some states, nurse practitioners can write prescriptions only with the collaborating doctor’s name included.
Nurse practitioners are not required to sit for a national certification exam, nor do they have to re-take the certification exam after the initial passage. Physician assistants must pass the exam once every six years.
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The salaries for both professions are similar and so are the job descriptions. Both professions got their start in the 1960s and both are often used to help fill gaps in medical care where there is a shortage of doctors or the cost of hiring additional physicians is prohibitive. Both professions can admit, interview, diagnose and treat patients with minimal oversight by the attending physician. Both may work in a variety of settings—from hospitals to pediatrics to obstetrics/gynecology. For many patients, it is far less important that their caregiver be a doctor of medicine than that he or she be knowledgeable, sympathetic, educated and confident in how to treat illness or injury and restore the person back to health. In the American healthcare arena, both nurse practitioners and physician assistants fill a vitally important role in easing the shortage of doctors and caring for those in need of healing.