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Physicians vs. PAs vs. Nurses: What’s the Difference?

Many people have heard of what a physician is and what their duties entail, but there are other levels of healthcare professionals that are not discussed as much—physician assistants (PAs) and nurses.

Physician assistants, or PAs for short, are similar to physicians with both diagnosing and treating patients, giving counseling on preventive healthcare, ordering medical tests and analyzing the results, conducting medical procedures, and planning treatment based on examinations and results of tests. While doctors are the only ones able to perform surgery, PAs can assist and do simple surgeries with physician supervision. Other than that, PAs are able to work independently without physician supervision once they are trained specifically for the specialization by the physician. PAs receive proof of their abilities and training as generalists but can specialize and change to other fields if they want to later in their careers, which physicians cannot do.

The most significant difference between a PA and a physician is the amount of time they spend in school. Both PAs and physicians graduate from college with a bachelor’s degree in any major while still fulfilling pre-med or pre-PA requirements. An accredited PA program can take about 27 months to complete along with a clinical rotation of about 12 months. Then, PAs can apply to be licensed PAs and will have to take recertification tests every 5 years to keep their skills and knowledge up to date. For a physician, their journey is long with four years of medical school and residency ranging from three to seven years. They will have to be board certified for their specialization at the national level and will be required to apply for a license for practicing medicine in the state they choose to do so. The length of time to become a physician assistant is shorter than a doctor and even shorter for a nurse.

Registered nurses can be seen as the backbone of the health system. Their duties include assessing patients initially, teaching patients and families about health topics, going through care plans, and giving medicine. However, they are not able to diagnose or prescribe medication, which contrasts with PAs and physicians.

There are also nurse practitioners who are nurses with a more advanced level of practice than registered nurses. Nursing schools focus on patient-centered medicine while PA schools put an emphasis on disease-centered medicine. PAs do direct and immediate treatment and care of patients while nursing practitioners emphasize wellness as a whole, prevention, and education. Nurse practitioners can also work without physician supervision, and their duties include giving hands-on patient care, putting together care plans, diagnosing patients, prescribing medication, and educating patients on how to improve their health. Similar to PAs, nurse practitioners can specialize or become a generalist.

The education required for a registered nurse is either getting an Associate’s degree in Nursing, which is two years, or a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing, which is four years. After doing one or the other, the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) must be completed as well as other state licensure requirements. On the other hand, nurse practitioners have to complete undergraduate requirements and then either a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Nurse Practioner Program or a Doctor of Nursing Practice Program. They will have to then pass an exam to be licensed. For specializations, NPs have to enroll in a separate program and pass a specific test for certification.

There are several types of careers one can do to be a part of the medical field and all of them have a role in improving the lives of patients in different ways. If you are confused about which healthcare role you want to be in, shadow and research to see what you are interested in the most!

Thank you for reading!

-Siri Nikku




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