Question: When I have gone in for a health care appointment in the past, I've noticed there are nurse practitioners and physician assistants. What kind of training is required to be a nurse practitioner or a physician assistant and what services are these professionals qualified to provide?
Answer: Nurse practitioners (NPs) and physician assistants (PAs) are called advanced practice providers (APPs) because they receive advanced training to perform a wide range of preventive and acute health care services.
Both can diagnose and treat common health problems, order and interpret imaging tests and lab work, prescribe medication, refer patients to specialists and manage chronic health issues such as diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma.
While the scope of practice is very similar for both NPs and PAs, they take different educational tracks to become certified in advanced care.
NPs attend a nursing school and follow a patient-centered model that focuses on disease prevention and health education. PAs attend a medical school and follow a disease-centered model that focuses on the biologic and pathologic components of health.
To be licensed, both need a minimum of a master's degree and an extensive amount of clinical hours working with patients. They also must pass a rigorous medical exam.
Rest assured, these are highly trained health care professionals capable of treating most common ailments. They are always under the supervision of a doctor, so if they should encounter a more serious problem, a physician can be called in for a consultation.
With the growing demand for medical care, more and more primary care physicians and specialists are coming to rely on APPs.
Patients can typically get in to see an NP or PA faster than they can a physician. By having them available to take care of routine complaints, it allows doctors to spend more time on complex cases.
In the last several years, Beaufort Memorial Hospital has hired a dozen APPs for its busy primary care practices and several more to assist doctors in specialties like gastroenterology, vascular and general surgery, orthopedics and obstetrics and gynecology.
So why has there been such an explosive growth of NPs and PAs?
The need for advanced practice providers has escalated dramatically for a number of reasons. The U.S. population is growing, and aging baby boomers and the expansion of insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act have added to the demand for services.
At the same time, fewer medical students are choosing primary care as their field of medicine.
According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, the U.S could be short as many as 150,000 physicians by 2030.
APPs are helping to fill the gulf between the growing demand for health care and the supply of doctors. Working as a team, we can provide patients with the care they need when they need it.
Of course, patients who prefer to see a physician can always make an appointment with a doctor. But it only takes one visit with a nurse practitioner or physician assistant to make a believer out of them.
Follow reporter Mindy Lucas on Twitter at twitter.com/MindyatIPBG.
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