Are Nurse Practitioners the Answer to the Doctor Shortage?

When it comes to my daughter’s pediatrician practice, I like seeing their doctors, but I love visiting with the nurse practitioner they have on staff.

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Nurse practitioners can do many of the things doctors can, including writing prescriptions.

She’s comprehensive. I’ve spent an hour with her during well visits. She’s thoughtful. During her explanations, she’ll pause and ask if I have questions. She’s a great communicator. Throughout the exam, she’ll say exactly what she’s doing, what she sees and what it means.

So it came as no surprise to learn that nurse practitioners (NPs) are seen as a crucial part of staving the current doctor shortage expected to worsen as more Americans enter the medical system through the ACA. In fact, the NP role was created in the 1960s when the nation faced a shortage of physicians back then.

NPs are registered nurses who hold a Masters of Science in nursing and have additional clinical training. They hold board certification in a specialty area, such as family, women’s health, pediatrics, adult, acute care, etc., and are licensed through the state nursing boards.

Although programs train NPs to diagnose and treat patients, some states limit their ability or require them to have varying degrees of oversight by medical doctors. This has caused some heated debates, as NPs in a number of states, including Connecticut, New York, Nevada, California and West Virginia, are pushing for legislation for the right to practice independently and improve access to care.

According to the American Nurses Association, approximately 60 to 80 percent of primary and preventive care can be performed by NPs. A report from the Institute of Medicine found that recent surveys conclude that the outcomes for patients who see doctors compared to nurse practitioners are the same.

Yet, several doctor groups stand firm that NPs should work in conjunction with doctors. They point out that they just don’t have the years of medical training that a doctor does, and left on their own, may not know when its appropriate to consult with a doctor on a patient.

While I’ll be watching how the debate unfolds, in the meantime I’m just happy to have a health professional who I trust to walk me through the challenges of being a new mom – no matter what initials are after her name.