Eric Murray: Differences between nurse practitioner and physician’s assistant subtle yet significant |

Eric Murray: Differences between nurse practitioner and physician’s assistant subtle yet significant

When you call to schedule an appointment with a family practice doctor and the doctor’s schedule is booked you might be presented with options. The receptionist might ask if you would like to see a nurse practitioner or a physician’s assistant. So what’s the difference?

Both are licensed to prescribe medications and diagnose patient conditions, but there are three significant differences: education, the relationship with the physician and philosophical approach.


A nurse practitioner must first be a registered nurse which requires a degree in nursing. Once a licensed registered nurse additional training and education (lasting about two years), leads to a master’s degree in nursing.

At that point a registered nurse can be qualified to take a national exam to be licensed as a nurse practitioner.

A physician’s assistant must complete an accredited PA education program after completion of a bachelor’s degree. Completion of this PA program, (generally lasting about two years), qualifies the candidate to take a national certification exam.

Relationship with the physician

A nurse practitioner is not required to be in the supervision of a physician, while a physician’s assistant must always be in the supervision of a physician. Nurse practitioners consider their relationship with physicians more “consolatory.”


Although these two differences might influence one’s decision about which to see, many patients seeking care will look past those details judging them to be relatively insignificant factors to their immediate health care needs and

focus on what some say to be the most significant difference between the two: philosophical approach to health care.

Nurse practitioners are trained with the concept of humanism as its predominant philosophy. Here the focus is on understanding the patient’s support function including friends and family as well as the patient’s living environment, diet and general lifestyle. Health education and disease prevention are a significant part of the philosophy adopted by nurse practitioners.

Physician assistants follow a medical model closer in line with the traditional physician philosophy of “total patient care”. Their approach is more based on biological factors and sickness treatment where the nurse practitioner’s focus is on social and behavioral causes of illness.

In the end, whether you get an appointment with a nurse practitioner or a physician’s assistant, I believe you’ll get suitable treatment which will most likely involve a prescription including a plan of wellness.

While one professional might ask what you’ve been up to and recommend healthier habits to prevent sickness while working to improve the current condition ” taking a more holistic approach, the other would analyze the biological indicators more and focus on the prescription and plan to get healthy.

I’m confident they are both quality professionals because of all the rigorous training, education and experience required. I’m also confident they have the patient’s best interests at heart. It seems the most relevant factor from the patient perspective is one of philosophical approach to health care and treatment. Which philosophy do you prefer?

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