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What’s the Difference Between Registered Nurses and Physician Assistants?

The healthcare industry is an evolving profession and one of the fastest-growing fields where employment is always plentiful. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimates, careers in the healthcare sector will grow by 16% from 2020 to 2030, representing 2.6 million vacancies. 

Next to doctors, nurses are also well-known professionals in the industry. However, as roles and responsibilities continue to evolve, some new medical careers are emerging, including physician assistants. 

Physician assistants often work full-time and side-by-side with doctors and nurses. The nature of their work can often lead people to confuse them with registered nurses. While they both work closely with doctors in patient care, there are various important differences between the two professions. 

How different are they from registered nurses? Read on.

The Difference Between Registered Nurses (RNs) and Physician Assistants

There’s a common misconception that registered nurses are doctor’s assistants. While they may assist doctors in some of their tasks, particularly when it comes to patient care, they also have specialized roles that set them apart from physician assistants. Here are some of the differences between registered nurses and physician assistants. 

  1. Education and Training

First, there is a clear difference in their educational requirements. If you want to earn an RN degree, there are two options to explore. One is to get an Associate’s Degree in Nursing (ADN) which can be completed within two years.

The other option is the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree, which runs for four years. After getting this degree, nurses must pass the National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX) and meet all the required state licensure exams to become registered nurses. 

The physician assistant, on the other hand, often needs to have more extensive education and training since most of their roles will be similar to those of practicing physicians. They must also have hours of healthcare experience before they can land a job. Some employers even require physician assistants to have a master’s degree, which can take up to two years. 

Physician assistants must also have their licenses before they can practice. They must complete an accreditation from the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) and pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination® (PANCE). Depending on their state of practice, they may also need to meet other licensure requirements.

  1. Roles and Responsibilities

Many consider nurses to be the backbone of the healthcare system. They are the ones on the ground, providing direct support to patients through patient assessments, drug administration, continuous care planning, and providing health education for patients and their families. 

Due to limitations in their education and clinical training, some nurses cannot diagnose patients or prescribe medications. 

This is where physician assistants have advantages over registered nurses. They can examine and diagnose patients. Physician assistants can also develop care plans, prescribe medicine, assist in surgeries, and even carry out research. In short, their line of work is closely similar to those of physicians. However, some states require them to report to a supervising physician. 

  1. Job Outlook and Salary

With the nursing shortage, the demand for nurses is high. According to the BLS, registered nurses have projected job growth of 9%, with 194,500 job openings within the next ten years. They also have various job opportunities they can explore, including rural care, traditional hospitals, medical clinics, outpatient care facilities, aged care, and private practice. When it comes to salary, registered nurses have a median salary of $75,330 annually. 

BLS projects growth for physician assistants to reach 31% from 2020 to 2030, making them the fastest-growing profession in the medical field. Physician assistants can expect earnings in the range of $90,000 and $120,000.

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The demand for physician assistants is high—many states expect physician shortages since it takes several years for doctors to complete their medical education and training. Some states are even easing their requirements for physician assistants so they can quickly compensate for the lack of doctors amid the growing demand for medical care. 

Should You Become a Registered Nurse or a Physician Assistant?

Now that you know how to get an RN degree and the differences between an RN and a physician assistant, you may wonder which career is best. The choice depends on your personal and professional goals. If you want to be employed within the next two years, an associate degree in nursing might be your best option since you can become a nurse within that time frame. The great thing about being a registered nurse is that you can still pursue higher education and training while being employed. 

If, however, you prefer to have a more similar role to medical doctors and prefer a higher pay scale, a career as a physician assistant may be more suitable for you. 

If you want to explore other career options in the medical field, explore our Programs page. 

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