RN vs. Physician Assistant: Diagnosing the Differences

Registered nurse vs physician assistant

There’s no doubt about it—jobs in the healthcare field are booming. As the population ages, healthcare professionals are needed in every area. The options seem like a dream—if you take school seriously and want a fulfilling career, you could succeed in one of many medical jobs. From surgical technologist to medical assistant to pharmacy technician, there are numerous job titles for every skill set.

But if you’re searching for a job in the medical sector, you may have come across various abbreviations and been confused. What’s the difference between an LPN and an RN? What does a CNA do? What about a DNP or LVN? While sorting this out may seem overwhelming, we’re here to help.  

What’s the difference between a physician assistant and a registered nurse?

If you’re exploring a future career in healthcare and comparing registered nurses versus physician assistants, you may be unwittingly asking the wrong question for a direct comparison.

For those not familiar with the healthcare field, it’s easy to think that these two job titles are generally the same thing—after all, nurses seemingly assist physicians, so that must mean they’re similar, right? But don’t let the “assistant” portion of the PA job title mislead you in thinking this is a low-level healthcare role—the emphasis should be on physician. To be clear, a physician assistant is not a physician, but works in coordination with an overseeing doctor to help with medical practice-related work. 

So what's a physician? A physician is anyone qualified to practice medicine, in other words, someone with a doctorate in medicine (MD) who is licensed to practice. Practicing medicine is a different discipline than practicing nursing. Nursing is typically focused more on caring for patients and administering treatments, while medicine focuses on diagnosis and developing treatment plans. 

Knowing that, you might not be surprised that there are some pretty big differences between registered nurses and physician assistants. But there is a role within the nursing practice, nurse practitioner, which is fairly similar to the role of a PA. So to help you get a more complete picture, and a closer apples-to-apples comparison, we’ve also included information about nurse practitioners in our breakdown.  

RN vs. PA vs. NP: Education requirements

Let’s begin our comparison with the education requirements needed for each role:

RN: If you want to be an RN, there are two primary educational routes—an Associate’s degree in Nursing (ADN) or a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. An Associate’s degree is generally a two-year program, while a BSN typically takes four years to complete. No matter which path you take, you will need to pass the NCLEX-RN exam.

PA: As physician’s assistants perform many of the same duties as doctors, they are required to obtain more education and training than compared to most RNs. Additionally, most PA programs require multiple years of healthcare experience to be admitted. Most entry-level positions require a specific Master’s degree. All PAs must earn licensure to practice, which happens after you pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE).

NP: Nurse practitioners need to complete the undergraduate coursework for registered nurses before beginning their journey to becoming certified NPs. After that, there are two primary pathways to becoming an NP—either a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) Nurse Practitioner program, or through completing a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program. Once they’ve obtained an advanced degree, they must pass an exam to become licensed. For specializations such as Anesthesia or Midwifery, nurse practitioners must enroll in a direct program and then pass a more specific certification exam.  

RN vs. PA vs. NP: Job duties

The daily duties of any job play a huge role in determining whether or not you’ll be happy in a specific career. It’s important to remember that, despite government job descriptions, duties will vary depending on years of experience and job location.

RN: “Nurses are the foundation of healthcare,” says Nancy Brook, RN and MSN. They assess and care for patients, administer medication and educate both patients and their families on various health topics. However, they cannot diagnose patients or prescribe medication unlike NPs or PAs.

RNs have job duties that aren’t directly related to patients, too. They are often tasked with maintaining accurate patient records and collaborating with doctors to determine the best course of action for each patient’s care. 

PA: The work of a PA is more similar to that of a doctor than of a registered nurse. Typical duties a PA can expect include examining and diagnosing patients, giving treatments such as shots and setting bones, prescribing medicine, assisting in surgery and conducting research on the latest treatments. Physician assistants can perform many of the same duties as a physician, but in most cases, have to report to a supervising doctor.

NP: Nurse practitioners are like a hybrid between RNs and PAs. Many NP duties mirror that of a PA; however, Nursing school emphasizes patient-centered medicine, while PA school focuses on disease-centered medicine. This means that physician assistants attend to the direct and immediate treatment of patients, whereas nurse practitioners shift their focus on prevention, wellness and education. Another important distinction is that in many states, nurse practitioners are licensed to work independently without physician supervision.

Specific duties of nurse practitioners include: providing hands-on patient care, creating care plans, diagnosing health problems, administering medication and educating patients on how to manage their health problems.

RN vs. PA vs. NP: Salary and job outlook

You might be looking into a career in healthcare because you want to help people, but salary and job security are still important factors to consider when you’re thinking about personal and professional stability.

RN: The 2016 median salary of a registered nurse was $68,450, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).* Employment of registered nurses is projected to grow 15 percent by 2026, which is much faster than the national average. Many of these jobs were available in outpatient centers and residential care facilities, as opposed to the traditional hospital settings.

PA: In contrast, the BLS reports the 2016 median annual salary of physician assistants was $101,480.* Employment of physician assistants is projected to grow 37 percent by 2026. With many states facing doctor shortages, several are reducing regulatory hurdles for PAs as a way to combat the issue. Another factor is the aging population—with more baby boomers needing medical attention, PAs will be needed to help diagnose and treat this sector of the population.

NP: The BLS reports the 2016 median salary for nurse practitioners was $100,910 and employment of NPs to grow 31 percent.* Like PAs, NPs are also called upon to provide care in some areas to ease the absence of physicians—a study found that NPs are capable of providing 80–90% of duties usually provided by primary care physicians.

The bottom line

RNs, PAs and NPs are not interchangeable, but they are all options for anyone interested in the healthcare field. All of these roles play an incredibly important part in our healthcare system and have strong job prospects going forward. Now that you’ve got a better understanding of the differences and relationship between RNs, PAs and NPs, you decide which route is best for you.

If you’re not sure about committing to one of the longer educational routes, that’s completely understandable. Fortunately, there’s no rule that says a registered nurse cannot become a physician’s assistant or nurse practitioner with more education later on in their career. If a career as a registered nurse sounds like the right move for you, check out our article, “How to Become a Registered Nurse: Your Step-by-Step Guide,” to learn more about what you’ll need to get started in this exciting field.


*Salary data represents national, averaged earnings for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries and employment conditions in your area may vary.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in June 2013. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2018.


Anna Heinrich

Anna is a Copywriter at Collegis Education who researches and writes student-focused content on behalf of Rasmussen College. She believes the power of the written word can help educate and assist students on their way to a rewarding education. 

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