Is There a Nurse Practitioner to Physician Assistant Track?

Interestingly, I’ve had a number of individuals ask about transitioning from the nurse practitioner to the physician assistant profession or vice versa. Returning to the academic setting to complete the full education requirements to become a PA seems unnecessary if you’re already a nurse practitioner since the two professions practice so similarly. So, is there a fast track for nurse practitioners who want to become physician assistants? What about the other way around?

Unfortunately for NPs and PAs looking to swap professions, there is not a nurse practitioner to physician assistant or a physician assistant to nurse practitioner education track.. If you truly wish to change professions, you will need to enroll in a complete NP or PA program which will take around two years to complete depending on the program and your enrollment status.

There is an interesting option available to individuals who have not yet selected either profession. If you’re a prospective student and can’t decide whether the nurse practitioner or physician assistant path is for you, UC Davis offers a dual Family Nurse Practitioner/Physician Assistant program. The program is “nurse practitioner first” in that applicants apply to the Family NP program and are only offered dual admission if allowed by the capacity of the PA program. 

What can you do if you’re dissatisfied with your career selection? Here are answers to common challenges that lead NPs/PAs to desire a new path: 

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I’m looking for more autonomy

State laws treat nurse practitioners and physician assistants differently. The more common scenario is that nurse practitioners have more autonomy than physician assistants when it comes to state physician supervision and prescribing regulations. If your profession isn’t allowed much autonomy in the state where you’re currently practicing, you might consider relocating. If this isn’t an option, decide if your employer is partially at fault. Many hospitals and clinics have their own supervisory restrictions when it comes to nurse practitioners and physician assistants. The lack of freedom you’re feeling in your practice may be more attributable to your place of employment than to laws in the state where you work. 

I want to work in a different specialty 

While nurse practitioners lock in a general direction as far as specialty in their training (ex. Family or Acute Care), physician assistants graduate with a more general degree. So, if you’re a NP looking to practice outside of the area in which you were initially educated, opt for a post-masters program in a new specialty. This will take far less time to complete than a PA program. 

Alternately, you may find that certain specialties in your region hire PAs over NPs or vice versa simply based on tradition. This is very common in the surgical setting. You might try applying for jobs asking for the other profession to get your foot in the door. Making personal connections to help leverage your job search will also help. Sometimes this is ultimately a case where you may need to be flexible with location to get exactly what you want as well. 

I have gaps in my clinical knowledge

There’s an ever-raging debate over whether nurse practitioners or physician assistants are better prepared for their careers upon graduation. Physician assistants train under a medical model, going through what’s essentially a mini medical school. Nurse practitioners are trained with a nursing model of education. Regardless of how you trained, in two years of schooling, you aren’t going to know everything there is to know about medicine. Period. So, if you’re craving a professional transition based on gaps in your clinical know-how, a self-education plan is a must. Attend conferences. Take continuing education courses. Most importantly, seek out an employer who understands the importance of mentorship and teaching in the employment setting. 

Do you regret your choice in professional direction? Why?


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