Chances are good that your next doctor’s appointment might find you treated by a nurse practitioner rather than your primary care physician.
It’s important to understand the similarities and differences in their roles. The distinctions are subtle, so much so that many people might not immediately recognize them.
Doctors are formally trained in medicine, meaning the treatment of disease through medication, medical procedure and sometimes surgery.
Nurse practitioners, who also are registered nurses, are formally trained in caring for the sick and have knowledge of how to diagnose, treat and manage many common ailments.
In many cases, they perform the same functions:
- Identify and treat acute and chronic illnesses
- Order and analyze labs and other diagnostic tests
- Prescribe medications.
Where doctors and nurse practitioners differ most is in the time spent on their respective educations and the types of patients they typically choose to see.
Physicians spend more time in school and conduct deeper study of diseases. Many physicians will identify a specific area or specialty that they have the most knowledge or interest in to pursue as a career.
Nurse practitioners also focus heavily on education. They often complete graduate-level courses and can spend hundreds of hours performing supervised clinical work. But they see patients at every phase of their lives, and typically don’t specialize in any one area. They can function well as primary care providers because their background includes knowledge of both holistic and wellness-oriented programs, which spotlight education, risk identification and preventative care.
According to the website AgingCare.com, a shortage of healthcare providers across the U.S. makes it crucial that nurse practitioners step up and provide primary care evaluations and diagnoses.
However, some patients and caregivers don’t trust anyone who doesn’t have an M.D. next to their name to perform some of these functions. Nurse practioners, though, should be evaluated on the level of care they are providing rather than the degrees they’ve earned.
The issue of how much authority to delegate to nurse practitioners regarding patient care has been a source of debate and contention for a number of years. According to The New York Times, a national panel of medical experts recommended in 2010 that nurses be allowed to practice to the full extent of their education and training, which meant they could lead a medical team, admit patients to a hospital and be compensated the same as a physician. The American Medical Association loudly rebuked the recommendation, and it failed to gain support. Similar discussions have been ongoing as part of the Affordable Care Act, but a consensus has yet to be reached.
For patients, it comes down to trust and common sense.
A patient needing a medical procedure that requires surgery will need to be treated by a physician. However, being treated for the flu, identifying the source of a persistent cough or having a curious blemish examined can be handled just as capably by a nurse practitioner.