Around 234,000 nurse practitioners (NP’s) in the United States are providing vital health care services, particularly in the field of primary health care. Under the auspices of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, “National Nurse Practitioner Week is held annually to celebrate these exceptional health care providers and to remind lawmakers of the importance of removing outdated barriers to practice so that NPs will be allowed to practice to the full extent of their experience and education.”
NP’s are registered nurses, with advanced education at master’s and even doctoral level, who provide cost-effective and patient-centered care. They are qualified to offer a full range of services for both acute and chronic conditions which includes performing or ordering diagnostic tests, diagnosing and treating acute and chronic conditions, and prescribing treatment, including medication. They focus the overall health and well-being of their clients using patient education for health promotion and disease prevention – assisting people to make educated health care decisions and healthy lifestyle choices.
The NP career has become one of the fastest growing fields of work. The first program for advanced nursing practice was offered in 1965, and the specialty has grown to the extent that an estimated 23,000 NP’s completed their academic programs in 2015-2016. By the turn of the century, there were around 68,000 licensed NP’s in the US, by 2017 they numbered more than 234,000, and the field is predicted to grow by another 35% by 2024. This year also, the job of NP was ranked second in the USNews 100 Best Jobs ranking, whereas four years ago it was not even in the top 20.
NP’s are licensed to prescribe medication, including controlled substances, and other treatments in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. To date, 22 states and the District of Columbia have granted NP’s full practice authority which means they can practice without oversight by a medical practitioner. This number increased dramatically as more people gained access to health insurance after the Affordable Care Act was passed.
Despite the resistance from the medical fraternity, mainly on the basis of potentially compromised patient safety, clients who have NP’s as their primary care providers have fewer emergency room visits and shorter hospital stays. A study published in 2015, using data from more than 10,000 patients in a primary care setting found few differences in primary care provided by medical practitioners and NP’s, while in some areas the care provided by NP’s might be superior. The NP’s provided care slightly different to that provided by medical practitioners but the quality of care was comparable, at the same or lower cost. NP consultations took slightly longer but there was generally more extensive patient education, and evidence also suggested that NP patients required fewer total visits.
All member countries support the view of the World Health Organization that accessible primary health care approach is the foundation for effective health services but even in advanced countries this has not been fully realized. There is already an acute shortage of primary care practitioners in the US with fewer medical practitioners interested in entering this field. Utilizing NP’s, and allowing them to practice to the full extent of their education and training, provides a logical and effective solution for addressing the shortage of primary health care providers.