FNP vs PA: What Are The Key Differences?

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FNP vs PA - a picture of a female FNP talking with a patient virtually.
August 18, 2022

In the United States, nearly every doctor takes care of hundreds, sometimes thousands of patients because of the current physician shortage. This makes providing good healthcare difficult. So, what can be done about this predicament? Enter: family nurse practitioners (FNPs) and physician assistants (PAs). These careers help to fill this gap. But in regards to FNP vs PA, what's the difference between the two? Are they similar at all? In this article, we'll discuss the differences and similarities between FNPs and PAs so you can decide which, if either, is the best career path for you!

FNP vs PA Education

To become a nurse practitioner (NP), you need a master's or doctoral degree. These include a combination of classroom learning and clinical training. A doctorate degree is quickly becoming preferred for NPs and can take up to five years to complete.

To become a PA, you need a master's degree. This also includes classroom learning and clinical training and usually takes about two to three years.


Every NP has a state license from their state board of nursing. In addition, NPs must also get a national provider identifier (NPI) and a drug enforcement agency (DEA) number. These are two separate licenses that are required for things like prescribing medications.

These licenses are renewed regularly and on a schedule that varies from state to state. Renewals require background checks, fingerprinting, proof of education and certification, proof of work hours if renewing, and continuing education hours (around 45 hours every two years).

Physician assistants have a state license that varies state by state, like NP licenses. In addition, PAs must also have NPI and DEA licenses.


Both NPs and PAs are medical providers and they are seen as healthcare partners with their patients. These can be primary care providers, hospital providers, and more. PAs don't choose a specialty in school, while NPs do. Various programs allow NPs to specialize in specific areas like women's health or pediatrics.

Skills and Scope FNP vs PA

Scope of practice is a way to describe what NPs and PAs can do legally. For example, the scope of practice for nurse practitioners includes the following skills:

  • Assessment
  • Ordering, performing, supervising, and interpreting diagnostic testing
  • Making diagnoses
  • Initiating and managing treatment plans
  • Coordinating care
  • Counseling
  • Educating patients and family members

NPs don't have to work under a supervising physician in most states. Plus NPs can work with many different types of patients, such as acute and chronic illnesses, complex medical conditions, health promotion, disease prevention, health education, and counseling.

The scope of practice for physician's assistants includes:

  • Assessment
  • Ordering, performing, supervising, and interpreting diagnostic testing
  • Making diagnoses
  • Initiating and managing treatment plans
  • Coordinating care
  • Counseling
  • Educating patients and family members

You'll notice these lists are exactly the same; HOWEVER, physician assistants must be supervised by a physician. This can vary by state on the specific rules and regulations.


Both NPs and PAs require different certifications, which involve passing an exam. PAs are certified through the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA), including the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE).

For NPs, the testing is similar, but there are several certifying bodies. The certifying body varies based on the NP's chosen specialty track. The two central certification bodies are the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners Certification Board (AANPCB) and the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC).

Jobs and Settings FNP vs PA

Nurse practitioners work with patients throughout their lifespan, including newborns, the elderly, and everything in between. Because of their comprehensive training, NPs are uniquely positioned to work anywhere after graduating, not just in primary care. They can also work in the following settings:

  • Primary care clinics
  • Specialty clinics
  • Other outpatient clinics
  • Urgent cares
  • Hospitals
  • Emergency rooms
  • Home care agencies
  • Research facilities
  • Universities or in other forms of academia

Physician's assistants also work with many patients across the lifespan. They are less likely to specialize but work in the same settings as nurse practitioners. However, they're more likely to work in hospital or inpatient settings than nurse practitioners are.


As of 2022, the average salary for an NP is $140,000. However, NPs can make as high as $180,000 per year.

PAs, on the other hand, have an average salary of $115,390, with the highest being up to $140,000 and the lowest being around $95,000.

Work-Life Balance

Nurse Practitioners have recently been ranked as one of the best occupations in the U.S. thanks to high marks in categories like work-life balance, low-stress levels, and competitive salary.

Physician assistants have a similar story. PAs work an average of 38 hours a week, which is outstanding compared to medical doctors who work 50-60 hours weekly. This speaks highly of the work-life balance for them as well.

Career Outlook

In 2021, there were 320,000 nurse practitioners in the U.S. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts the number of nurse practitioners will increase by 34% from 2012 to 2022. This is triple the average growth for other occupations, showing drastic change and an exponential career outlook.

Employment of physician assistants is likely to grow 31% by 2030, much faster than the average for all occupations. About 12,200 openings for physician assistants are projected each year. This is similar to the nurse practitioners’ and shows a promising future career outlook.

FNP vs PA – Which Is Right for You?

So, now that you know the differences and the similarities between FNP vs PA, do you know which is right for you? If you're interested in becoming an NP, check United States University's family nurse practitioner program for more information.

If you want more information about the roles in general, be sure to check out the following:

Alison Shely, DNP, FNP-C, is an NP, nurse coach, yoga teacher, and nurse writer who specializes in articles, blogs, and copy. She has been in nursing since 2014, working in intensive care, women’s health, and primary care as a registered nurse and family nurse practitioner. Her specialty topics include mental health, health and wellness, yoga philosophy and practice, and community health. She also serves as a mental health coach primarily to other nurses and healthcare workers concerning healthy lifestyles and mental health.

Visit her website for coaching details: npcoachalison.com