Should I become a physician assistant or a nurse?

July 23, 2015

medical billing and coding

For students interested in the medical profession, there are a lot of choices. Two professions, which offer a chance to work in various specialties and provide direct patient care are nursing and working as a physician assistant. How do you know which career is right for you. Comparing both the job of a nurse and a PA can help you determine the similarities, differences and which appears to be a better fit.

Overview of a PA

The responsibilities of a physician assistant may vary a little bit depending on the specialty they work in. In general, physician assistants work under the direction of a doctor to diagnose and treat patients with various types of diseases and medical conditions.

Physician assistants may order and interpret tests, such as lab work and x-rays, perform exams and prescribe treatments. PA’s also counsel and educate patients about their condition. Depending on where a PA works, they may also assist or perform various procedures. PA’s work in hospitals, clinics, urgent care centers and with doctors in private practice.

Overview of a Registered Nurse

First, it is important to understand a registered nurse is different from a nurse practitioner. Nurse practitioners have an advanced degree and can diagnose and prescribe treatments for conditions.

Registered nurses carry out the orders of a doctor or in some cases a PA. They often perform assessments, administer medication, change dressings and care for wounds. Nurses also coordinate the patient’s care with other members of the healthcare team, such as physical and occupational therapists. Some registered nurses do not work in direct patient care. Instead, they work as case managers or discharge planners. Nurses work in a wide variety of settings including hospitals, nursing homes, schools, doctor’s offices and in home health.

Similarities between a PA and Registered Nurse

If you are trying to decide if working as a nurse or a PA is the better fit, it is a good idea to compare and contrast both professions. Both physician assistants and registered nurses provide direct patient care. They both work with a wide variety of patients of different ages.

Nurses and PA’s work in similar healthcare settings, such as hospitals and clinics. But registered nurses are also hired to work in alternative settings, such as insurance agencies, pharmaceutical companies and schools.

Registered nurses and physician assistants can both specialize and work in a specific area of medicine. For instance, they can work in specialties including emergency medicine, critical care and oncology.

Both fields also require a license to practice. Nurses and PA’s most both undergo a criminal background check, pass a licensing exam and take continuing education classes to maintain their license.

The outlook for both professions is expected to be good for the coming years. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the nursing profession is expected to grow by about 19 percent between 2014 and 2022. The PA profession is also expected to grow by about 30 percent in the next ten years.

How a PA and Nurse differ

Although there are some similarities to working as a nurse and a PA, there are also many differences. One of the biggest differences is physician assistants can diagnose conditions and prescribe treatment, unlike registered nurses. Nurses can recommend treatment, but they must have a doctor or PA prescribe the treatment before administering it.

PA’s have more authority or decision-making ability than registered nurses. Although both nurses and physician assistants have a great deal of responsibility, PA’s tend to have a little bit more since they are prescribing treatment.

Physician assistants often make more than registered nurses. Although many factors go into salaries, such as experience, specialty and geographic areas, PA’s usually come out on top. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for PA’s in 2013 was about $90,000 a year. Nurses on the other hand made about $66,000 a year according to the BLS.

Length of schooling

Two and four-year registered nursing programs are options for those interested in the field. Although some two-year nursing programs may have prerequisites for admission, many programs may be completed in a few years. Many physician assistant programs award a master’s degree after completion of the schooling.

PA programs often require a bachelor’s degree for admission. If a bachelor’s degree is not required, a minimum of an associate degree is needed in order to get into a PA program. Most PA programs are about two years long. The bottom line is a registered nursing degree can often be earned in two years, while a PA degree usually takes between four and six when you combine undergrad requirements.

How to decide between being a PA and a Registered Nurse

Since the outlook is good for both professions, and they both involve helping people, it can be difficult to decide which profession fits you better. Take a little time to research both careers and think about your goals before deciding, which career fits you best.

One way to get feel for both jobs is to shadow a nurse and a PA. Get involved in a shadowing program and spend time with both nurses and physician assistants. Shadowing can help you see firsthand the day to day responsibilities of each profession.

Volunteering in a hospital or clinic is also a good way to learn more about each profession. Your best bet is to volunteer somewhere that both registered nurses and physician assistants work. If possible, talk to both to get a better understanding of the opportunities each field provides.

Consider how long you are willing to go to school. If you are eager to jump right in and start working in the medical field, it is often quicker to become a registered nurse over a PA. Decide how much responsibility you want to have. If you prefer to be in charge and be the decision maker, working as a physician assistant may be a better fit than working as a registered nurse.

Still not sure which to pick? We offer work shadowing placements in both nursing and physician assistant work, so you can observe a professional in action before you take the plunge.



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Gap Medics provides year-round hospital work experience for people aged 16 and over. Our shadowing placements offer a unique insight into the work of doctors, nurses, midwives, and dentists – helping students to focus their career aspirations before embarking upon medical training.