Should I become a PA or a nurse?

September 5, 2016

cardiac nurse

You might have decided in a career in the medical field. You have got it narrowed to a couple of choices. Now comes the hard part, deciding which is right for you. Should you pursue a career as a physician assistant or a nurse? Before deciding which medical profession feels right, it’s helpful to understand the differences and similarities between the two.

Similarities between registered nurses and physician assistants

It can be a tough decision to choose between becoming a physician assistant or a registered nurse. After all, both professionals are important members of the healthcare team. Both also offer several different specialties you can focus on. For example, physician assistants can specialize and work in emergency medicine. Nurses can also work in the emergency room. Other specialties, which have opportunities for both physician assistants and nurses include oncology, cardiology, and geriatrics.

Both PA’s and nurses may work in hospitals, clinics, and rehabilitation facilities. They both may also work in a medical practice under the direction of a doctor. Both may be involved in direct patient care and treat patients with a variety of medical issues.

Although the path to becoming a nurse and a physician assistant is different, both careers require a medical license to practice. Background checks including a criminal history are also required for licensure. Both are required to take continuing education classes to maintain their professional license.

Differences between registered nurses and physician assistants

While there are several similarities, there are also differences between nurses and physician assistants. For instance, the training required to become a registered nurse can range from two years to earn an associate degree to four years for a bachelor’s degree. The minimum requirement to work as a physician assistant is master’s degree.

Their scope of practice is different. A physician assistant is allowed to do many of the same things as a doctor, such as order and interpret medical tests. A registered nurse does not write the orders for patients. Instead, an RN implements or carries out the doctor’s or physician assistant’s orders.

Although there may be some overlap in actual tasks performed, physician assistants and registered nurses often provide different direct patient care. For example, nurses may provide wound care, start intravenous lines and administer medications. Physician assistants may perform more complex tasks, such as inserting chest tubes, suturing wounds and assisting in surgery.

Physician assistants often have more autonomy than a registered nurse. Although they work under a doctor’s supervision, they often make patient care decisions independently under their scope of practice.

An exception: nurse practitioners and physician assistants

When a registered nurse pursues an advanced degree and becomes a nurse practitioner, the differences between the professions is much less. In fact, nurse practitioners and physician assistants often have many of the same responsibilities. For example, both professionals take medical histories, perform physical exams and diagnose and treat various conditions. Both can order and interpret certain diagnostic tests, prescribe medication and educate patients on their condition.


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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.