Non-physician, advanced healthcare practitioners are popular career choices and there is a demand for their clinical skills. Nurse practitioners (NP) and physician assistants (PA) represent two professions that provide advanced care to patients without the medical doctor credential. From the consumer perspective, it may be difficult to tell the difference between a nurse practitioner and a physician assistant. Both professionals provide quality care, can prescribe medications, and interpret labs. A more detailed review will explain some of the important differences.
In the United States, scopes of practice for nurse practitioners and physician assistants are defined at the state level. This complicates the ability to accurately define general differences. Levels of autonomy and limitations imposed on providing care may differ from state to state. Both professions have professional organizations that advocate for their members and provide a platform to guide defining scopes of practice.
The American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) describes the scope of practice for a physician assistant as being necessarily flexible. Historically, there were strict guidelines on physician assistant practice guidelines. Today, practice is often defined at the facility level, ensuring that the physician assistant works within their experience and competency. This allows for collaborating physicians to optimize these partners in care and respond to the changing healthcare environment. It is common for a physician assistant to have prior patient care experience. A physician assistant may have prior experience as a paramedic, nurse, or phlebotomist to name a few.
Nurse practitioners are registered nurses (RN) who have continued their training to provide an advanced level of care. Nurse practitioners have a degree of autonomy depending on the state in which they are practicing. However, in general, nurse practitioners and the physician assistants function under the oversight of a medical doctor or in collaboration with a medical doctor . The American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) describes the scope of practice for a nurse practitioner as crossing the continuum of care, from disease prevention and health promotion to managing acute and chronic illnesses.
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