If you're a registered nurse with some experience and ambition, there are several paths to greater pay and responsibility. You could earn a management degree, and move into administration. You could upgrade your skills through a graduate degree, and become an advanced practice nurse. Alternatively, you could become a physician assistant. Physician assistants and advanced practice nurses have similar training and duties, but for some nurses the PA role makes sense as a career path.
Physician Assistant vs. Nurse Practitioner
For a nurse looking to advance, training as a nurse practitioner might be the obvious choice. It keeps you within nursing, and nurse practitioners enjoy a high level of independence in most states. As a physician assistant, you'd work directly under the supervision of a physician. That structured relationship has its advantages. Since a PA's work is delegated by the supervising physician, a PA can change specialties simply by working with a new doctor. A nurse practitioner needs to earn certification in each area of practice. While nurse training is more holistic, PAs focus on specific technical skills such as suturing and wound care.
Most PA training programs consist of one year's classroom instruction, followed by 15 months in clinical training. Most programs require or prefer their applicants to have prior health-care experience, so being a nurse won't speed your training. Still, a bachelor's degree in nursing will usually meet the prerequisites for admission, which are oriented toward biology and other sciences. During your classroom training, you'll cover a variety of basic medical knowledge and diagnostic skills, as well as your legal and ethical obligations as a PA. The clinical portion of the curriculum will give you exposure to the main branches of medicine, including pediatrics, emergency medicine and general surgery.
After you've completed your training, you still need to be certified and licensed. You must take and pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam, or PANCE, before your state's board of medicine will license you to practice. To maintain your certification, you'll have to complete 100 hours of continuing education every two years, then write the Physician Assistant National Recertifying Examination before the end of the sixth year.
Registered nurses are in high demand in many markets, but job prospects are even stronger for physician assistants. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 26 percent employment growth for registered nurses between 2010 and 2020, but a 30 percent increase for physician assistants. That's well over the national average of 14 percent for all occupations. There's a widespread need for primary health care practitioners, especially in rural and medically underserved areas.
- American Medical Association: Health Care Careers Directory -- Physician Assistant
- Clinical Advisor: Should You Pursue a Career As a Physician Assistant or Nurse Practitioner?
- UC Berkeley Career Center: Nurse Practitioner and Physician Assistant -- What's the Difference?
- Physician Assistant ED: Why Aren't You Becoming a Nurse Practitioner?
- Forbes: Amid Doctor Shortage, Hospitals Turn To Dwindling Supply Of Nurses, Physician Assistants
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook -- Physician Assistants
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook -- Registered Nurses
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.