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Can Nurse Practitioners Help Ease the Growing Physician Shortage?

by Elaine K. Howley for U.S. News & World Report

When you're sick, you head to the doctor. But these days, you may have some other options for other health care providers who can take care of you.

One in particular that you may be seeing more often is the nurse practitioner, who isn’t a doctor but can help patients with some of the same issues and concerns that a primary care physician looks after. Given the dire and growing shortage of primary care physicians in the U.S. right now, nurse practitioners are increasingly viewed as a potential solution to the problem.

As proof of that, a new report released Thursday by the Health Care Cost Institute shows that between 2012 and 2016 visits to non-physician health care providers (nurse practitioners and physician assistants) soared 129 percent, while office visits to primary care physicians dropped 18 percent.

Although the report doesn’t separate the data on visits to NPs compared to PAs, both NPs and PAs are non-physician health care providers with advanced degrees who can often assist patients with primary care needs.

“Patients may increasingly see nurse practitioners and physicians’ assistants as a substitute for primary care physicians, especially in areas with PCP shortages where scheduling an office visit to a PCP is more difficult,” says John Hargraves, senior researcher at HCCI and an author of the report.

So, what exactly is a nurse practitioner, and why is their popularity growing so much? Joyce M. Knestrick, president of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, says these providers "treat patients across the lifespan with acute and chronic illness. NPs assess patients, diagnose problems, order diagnostic tests and order medications.

NPs blend clinical expertise when making a diagnosis and treating health conditions with an added emphasis on disease prevention and health management.” And because “we are nurses, we bring a comprehensive perspective and a personal touch to health care,” she adds.

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What's the Going Rate for Nurse Practitioners?

More than ever before, healthcare organizations are turning to Nurse Practitioners to provide patient care.

The number of licensed NPs has more than doubled since 2007, according to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the number of Nurse Practitioners will grow 36 percent by 2026.

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