Physicians vs. Physician Assistants vs. Nurse Practitioners vs. Nurses

Nurse Practitioners

It’s not hard to identify the difference between physicians and physician assistants, as their names suggest that the latter assists the former. Most people are also aware of a nurse’s responsibilities in the healthcare industry, no matter their level of education. However, when it comes to detailing the duties of a nurse practitioner versus a nurse, or a nurse practitioner versus a physician assistant, the responsibilities may not be so clear-cut— especially if you’re a patient making an appointment. It can also be confusing if you’re wanting to pursue a career in healthcare, so here’s a look at the similarities and differences among physicians, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, and nurses.


Physicians, more commonly known as doctors, are medical professionals that specialize in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of a variety of medical issues depending on their area of specialization. They can open their own private medical practice, or work alongside other physicians in other medical settings. Some examples of career paths/types of physicians include:

  • Anesthesiologists
  • Cardiologists
  • Dentists
  • Neurologists
  • Pediatricians
  • Surgeons

Physicians are also some of the highest-paid medical professionals in the U.S. and around the world, with their median annual salary being over $200,000. To become a physician, one must complete a Bachelor’s degree in biology or a related field, complete four years of medical school, and complete a residency (length depends on specialization).

Nurse Practitioners (NPs)

Nurse practitioners are nurses who have almost all of the same abilities and responsibilities as physicians. They are licensed clinicians who can also diagnose, treat, and help prevent illnesses and diseases. However, NPs don’t have this full autonomous authority in all states, so it’s important to understand which states allow for full, reduced, and restricted practice. So (as of October 2022) in more than half of U.S. states, NPs can practice medicine without the supervision of a physician.

Another difference between physicians and NPs is the amount and type of education they receive. Physicians earn an MD after completing medical school and their residency, whereas NPs typically earn an MSN (Master of Science in Nursing) with an NP specialty and then complete a practicum. NPs can also have specialties, with some of the most common being:

  • Clinical nurse specialist
  • Family nurse practitioner
  • Nurse anesthetist
  • Pediatric nurse practitioner

Physician Assistants (PAs)

A PA can perform many of the duties of a physician and an independent nurse practitioner. They can write prescriptions and diagnose/treat illnesses. PAs mainly work alongside and under the supervision of physicians, and they can also choose a specialty just as physicians can. Like NPs, PAs only need to complete a Master’s degree along with additional training— they don’t necessarily need to attend a medical school like physicians.

PAs can serve as primary care providers just as a physician or NP can, although they do make less than both physicians and NPs. The median salary for a PA is around $122,000 per year, whereas the median salary for an NP is slightly higher at around $123,000 per year. However, all three of these positions are widely needed, as there are jobs for PAs, physicians, and NPs widely available in the U.S.


Nurses are healthcare professionals that provide care for patients in a variety of medical settings, most notably a hospital, where they work under the supervision of physicians. Nurses can also work with patients in their own homes. Nursing is the largest profession in the healthcare industry, with a variety of careers available at different educational levels. Some of the most common types of nursing positions include:

  • CNAs (certified nursing assistants)
  • Labor and delivery nurses
  • LPNs (licensed practical nurses)
  • Nurse case managers
  • RNs (registered nurses)

There are also different types of RNs, such as oncology RNs, critical care RNs, emergency room RNs, home care RNs, and surgical assistant RNs. Of all the different types of nursing specialties, nurse practitioners are the highest paid, while CNAs are paid the lowest amount ($30,000 is the median annual salary).


All four of these professions are necessary for the healthcare industry, as they all treat patients to a certain extent. All can also recommend tips to help patients live a healthier life. All of these professions also allow you to specialize in a particular area of medicine, so there are many career paths to take in each of these professions. Whether you choose to become a physician, a PA, an NP, or a nurse, you’re sure to have job security, as these jobs will always be needed.

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