Health & wellness

Comparing training for physician assistants, nurse practitioners, doctors

More doctors’ offices are letting patients choose who to see for primary care, a physician, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant. While these professionals all are qualified to perform physical exams and prescribe medications, they complete training programs that vary in length and can emphasize different skills.

Physician Assistants 2010

Training Four-year bachelor’s degree in any major, but must take prerequisite science courses to enroll in a physician assistant training program. The average length of a program is 26 months and graduates earn a master’s degree.

Curriculum Mirrors that of medical school, and is heavy on science including anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, and genetics. Students complete clinical rotations in most areas of medicine including surgery, oncology, emergency medicine, and primary care.

What they do State laws governing physician assistants vary; some states allow them to admit patients to the hospital. Massachusetts now allows them to manage their own group of patients, under a physician’s supervision. They are generalists who diagnose and treat illness and injury, order and interpret diagnostic tests and assist with surgery.

Nurse Practitioners 2011


Training Four-year nursing school to become a registered nurse before applying for an advanced degree. Many nurse practitioners hold master’s degrees, but there is a movement in the profession toward obtaining a doctorate degree.

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Curriculum Contains less science than that for physician assistants, and greater emphasis on treating patients holistically, including addressing the social impact of disease, and educating patients and families on healthy behavior.

What they do Nurse practitioners often specialize in areas like obstetrics or oncology. They also diagnose and treat illness and injury, and order and interpret diagnostic tests.

Doctors 2010

Training Four-year bachelor's degree, heavy on science courses, then four years of medical school. After graduation, physicians complete a residency program in a hospital, and conduct research. The length of residency depends on the specialty, but most primary care doctors complete three or four years of on-the-job training with increasing degrees of responsibility.

Curriculum Similar to that for physician assistants, but much deeper and broader. Medical students get many more hours of instruction in each subject.


What they do Doctors usually specialize in treating specific types of patients or diseases and are qualified to manage the most complex patients such as cancer patients in intensive care units. Primary care doctors diagnose and treat the most common conditions and care for patients longterm.

Correction: Because of a designer’s error, a graphic accompanying this story overstated the number of medical professionals working in Massachusetts. The totals shown were for doctors, nurse practitioners, and physicians assistants working nationwide.