With startling regularity, stories continue to appear in publication after publication in which the authors fret about how to respond to the growing demand for health care, particularly primary care, and the accompanying shortage of doctors. Typically, the writers call for more medical schools, more money for medical students to lower debt, and incentives for medical students to go into primary care.
As we have noted many times before – and in many settings – such measures are important, but they will not be enough and they will not get solutions in place as quickly as is necessary. Meanwhile, there is a more immediate, research-based solution right in front of us – if only state legislatures would listen objectively to the evidence.
Nurse practitioners (NPs) are RNs with at least a master’s degree who are nationally certified for a particular specialty area, such as family health care, midwifery or adult-geriatric care. Compared with physicians, NPs take less time to train, the programs are less expensive to run and the amount of student debt is less. Equally important, studies that the Institute of Medicine has characterized as valid have shown that NPs can safely and effectively deliver 90 percent of pediatric primary care services and 75 percent of general primary care services. Other studies have shown that each discipline sends patients to specialists when needed. Moreover, NPs are more likely than physicians to practice in underserved areas, both urban and rural, where the shortages are most severe.
Despite such findings, we still find articles in national publications in which the authors or their sources espouse relegating NPs to “performing vaccinations and strep tests.” That is a woeful underutilization of highly skilled practitioners. It reflects limited scope-of-practice rules and a narrow vision for addressing the desperate need for more high-quality primary care, which nearly every expert agrees is critical to improving people’s health – and reducing the exorbitant cost of care in this country.
The Bay Area Council Economic Institute recently issued a white paper that, among other things, noted that allowing nurse practitioners in California to practice to the full extent of their education and training could save the state $1.8 billion on preventative care visits alone over 10 years while increasing the number of those visits by 2 million per year. The lead author of the report notes: “While no single policy change will be a panacea for the critical cost and access issues facing California, this reform [allowing nurse practitioners to provide the health care services they were trained and licensed for] could be an important first step to bring down some of the barriers that are keeping healthcare costs artificially high.”
To be clear: having nurse practitioners practice to the full extent of their education and experience does not remove the need for more schools, more funding for the health professions and incentives to draw more professionals into primary care.
But those are longer-term concerns. To meet the shorter-term health needs of individuals and populations, there is a solution available now. It is time for legislatures to stop being distracted by false arguments and expensive lobbying efforts. They should act immediately to free nurse practitioners to practice to the full extent of their education, so NPs can help address the health care needs of the people our legislators serve.