Advanced practice nurses and physician assistants are not the same


Looking across a hospital ward, emergency department, or primary care clinic aligned side by side, you may not see any differences between an advanced practice nurse (APN) or physician assistant (PA). However, if you took a closer look at their education programs and credentialing, you would find considerable differences.

Although both professions hold advanced degrees, the approach to patient care differs, as well as the training they receive, including different models of practice. The APN is trained according to the nursing model, while the PA attends programs that are more in line with the medical model. The APN has a patient-centered model, while the PA adheres to a disease-centered model. Consequently, their approach to caring for the same patient population differs in viewpoint and philosophy.

Margaret Thew

Margaret Thew

The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines the role of a nurse practitioner as follows: “Nurse practitioners serve as primary and specialty care providers, providing advanced nursing services to patients and families.” The education for the APN has gone through a transformation over the last decade. In 2004, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing recommended a new standard for entry to take effect in 2015, moving from a master’s program to a Doctor of Nursing Practice. The change from a master’s program to a doctoral program was thought to make the APN degree more comparable with the intraprofessionals with whom they would interact.

Entry into the APN programs requires a nursing degree or related field from an accredited college or university. The curriculum includes coursework in health care policy, advocacy, outcomes, advanced assessment, diagnosis, and practice skills as well as, pharmacology, pathophysiology, and a final capstone project.

There are six specialty APN tracks including pediatrics, women’s/gender health, family practice, adult-gerontology, psychiatric, and neonatal. Additionally, there are three additional advanced practice registered nurses tracks: certified nurse anesthesia, certified nurse midwife, and clinical nurse leader. In addition to academic hours, there is a minimum of 1,000 supervised, direct patient care clinical hours in a variety of locations covering all populations specific to the identified specialty.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines the role of physician assistant as follows: “Physician assistants practice medicine under the supervision of physicians and surgeons. PAs are formally trained to provide diagnostic, therapeutic, and preventive health care services, as delegated by a physician.” The physician assistant program is a master’s prepared education.

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