Understanding the difference between the FNP and PA programs

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American health care organizations have accelerated their recruitment efforts and are expected to add more than 2.4 million new positions between 2016 and 2026, according to research from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics published in 2018. These conditions are ideal for health care professionals looking to ascend the career ladder or explore exciting new roles.

However, selecting the right professional path is no easy task. There are numerous positions available in today’s ever-expanding health care industry. Individuals who want to move forward in the space must wade through these occupations and choose the best option. Many end up weighing two specific career opportunities: family nurse practitioner and physician’s assistant.

Each position requires unique skills and experience, but both offer immense opportunity for individuals seeking health care careers.

Understanding the FNP role

Care providers across the country are grappling with a growing primary care physician shortage. Seasoned doctors are aging out of the profession, while young medical students gravitate toward higher-paying specialties as opposed to general practice. By 2030, these parallel developments are expected to create a shortage of between 42,600 and 121,300 family doctors, according to research from the Association of American Medical Colleges published in 2018.

This poses serious problems for American families, especially those in rural areas where reliable medical care is already in short supply, the National Rural Health Association found. With this growing issue on the horizon, many health care organizations have begun searching for alternative solutions, recognizing that a sudden influx of primary care physicians is unlikely. Many are turning toward FNPs.

These nursing professionals leverage advanced clinical expertise and increased practice authority to perform the basic duties of a primary care physician, including performing physical examinations and prescribing medication. FNPs have been practicing in an official capacity since the late 1960s, when some of the first FNP education programs became available in the U.S., according to information from the American Association of Nurse Practitioners published in 2018. These initial instructional tracks taught registered nurses how to diagnose acute and long-term illnesses, and design effective treatment plans for patients of all ages. In the years since, the profession has played a bedrock role within the health care space.

Now, more than 148,000 FNPs work in communities throughout the U.S., with 60 percent seeing three or more patients per hour, the AANP found in 2018. Federal and state legislators have granted FNPs in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., prescriptive authority, meaning these health care professionals can follow through on virtually all aspects of primary care. This makes them indispensable in light of the rising physician shortage. This circumstance has, in turn, pushed care providers to recruit aggressively for qualified FNPs. In fact, demand for these roles is expected to rise by 31 percent between 2016 and 2026, when tens of thousands of new FNPs will be working in wards across the U.S., according to BLS data published in 2018.

How can forward-looking health care professionals enter this growing field? Obtaining a master’s degree is often the first step, the AANP reported in 2018. An estimated 97 percent of the FNPs in the U.S. hold this credential, making it a prerequisite. Instructional tracks such as the online Master of Science in Nursing — Family Nurse Practitioner program at Bradley University can prepare growth-minded health care professionals for these roles.

At Bradley, for example, students explore a wide range of advanced clinical subjects, from Statistical Procedures and Evidence-Based Practice to Legal and Ethical Issues in Health Care and Advanced Pharmacology. This varied curriculum gives MSN FNP recipients the opportunity to pursue a variety of nursing avenues, equipping them with the advanced practice skills, big-picture industry outlook and leadership competencies they need to find success in today’s complex health care environment.

With the insights gained in these courses, along with specialized offerings catered to the FNP career path, health care professionals can transition into in-demand positions with high impact potential and strong compensation packages. FNPs working in the U.S. earn a median salary of almost $111,000, BLS analysts found in 2018. Together, these variables make the job attractive to health care professionals looking to find new opportunities in the field.

Understanding the PA role

The PA position came about around the same time as the FNP role, according to an article published in 2018 in Pediatrics, an American Academy of Pediatrics publication. In the beginning, both roles carried very similar responsibilities, most of which were meant to be executed under the supervision of a physician.

Today, an estimated 123,000 certified PAs work in health care organizations across the country, according to research from National Commission on Certification of Physicians Assistants published in 2018. These professionals manage more than 400 million patient interactions per year, helping their charges obtain and interpret critical screenings, navigate surgical procedures and get the medicine they need to deal with acute and chronic medical conditions of all kinds, according to data from the American Academy of Physicians Assistants and the NCCPA published in 2018.

PAs also perform other critical duties, including collecting patient medical histories, conducting physical examinations and offering information on essential preventive care. However, PAs must establish agreements with specific physicians to carry out these tasks, meaning they operate with slightly less practice authority than FNPs. That said, the educational requirements are just as intensive. Some PAs possess master’s degrees and have 2,000 or more hours of clinical rotation experience.

These professionals are in high demand in the U.S., according to BLS data published in 2018. Health care organizations are expected to hire more than 39,000 new PAs between 2016 and 2026, constituting an employment increase of 37 percent. Consequently, salaries for these roles are high and moving upwards. The average PA working in the U.S. earns almost $105,000 annually, the BLS reported. The general recruitment environment makes the job ideal for health care professionals looking to transition into an impactful, growing niche.

Pinpointing the right program

Some might prefer to pursue the FNP path due to the increased practice authority that comes with the role and slightly higher median pay. Health care professionals considering this route would be wise to look into the online MSN-FNP program at Bradley University. The school, which ranks among the top seven Midwest Regional Universities, according to U.S. News & World Report, can help aspiring FNPs cultivate multifaceted skill sets and build fulfilling careers, all without taking on the extra expenses and time commitments that come with on-campus graduate education.

Contact Bradley University today to learn more about the online MSN-FNP program.

Recommended Readings:

Preventative health: How going digital can help patients

What are the benefits of an online FNP program?


Bradley University

American Association of Nurse Practitioners

Association of American Medical Colleges

National Rural Health Association


American Association of Nurse Practitioners

American Academy of Physicians Assistants

Bureau of Labor Statistics

American Academy of Physicians Assistants

American Academy of Physicians Assistants