The healthcare system has been subject to more strain than usual in the past few years. There are shortages in a wide range of key positions that communities require to enjoy continued access to high-quality care. These shortages have impacted everything from nurses and doctors to mental health professionals.
It’s a complex problem for which nurse practitioners may provide a highly effective answer. Nurse practitioners have many of the same abilities as a doctor. In certain parts of the country, they can make diagnoses, prescribe medication, and even open their own family health practices.
In this article, we take a look at how these highly qualified professionals can play an important role in the increasingly complicated healthcare ecosystem.
The Role of Nurse Practitioners
First, it is important to understand what nurse practitioners can do. Thanks to a versatile and wide-ranging education, nurse practitioners are qualified to fill a wide range of different roles. Below, we take a look at a few of the many positions nurse practitioners can fill.
- Primary care provider: Nurse practitioners are able to perform many of the same roles as a primary care doctor. Depending on the state they live in, they may even be able to open their own practice and see patients with complete autonomy.
- Patient education: Even in areas where laws concerning nurse practitioners are conservative, they are still able to make recommendations and guide their patients on what the best course of action might be. Though they may not be able to make diagnoses under certain state laws, they will always be able to provide advice the same way that medical doctors can.
- Specialty care: Nurse practitioners are not limited to general health. They can specialize based on their interests to treat people at every stage of life. This includes everything from neo-natal care to mental health work. The wide range of certifications available to nurse practitioners makes them effective professionals in almost all aspects of healthcare.
The versatility of nurse practitioners makes them ideal for taking on a wide range of healthcare responsibilities that are currently underserved. For example, in many rural areas, there simply are not enough qualified professionals to go around.
How to Become a Nurse Practitioner
The first step to becoming a nurse practitioner is to obtain a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree, typically a four-year program that provides fundamental nursing knowledge and skills. Upon graduation, aspiring NPs must pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN) to become a licensed registered nurse (RN).
After gaining some clinical experience as an RN, individuals can pursue an advanced degree, either a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program. These graduate-level programs focus on specialized areas of nursing practice, such as family medicine, pediatrics, or acute care.
Aspiring NPs should choose a program that aligns with their interests and career goals. While the graduate work can take 2-3 years in its own right, aspiring nurse practitioners will find that their experience can vary significantly based on their existing qualifications, and the pace that they choose to work at.
Upon completing the MSN or DNP program, aspiring NPs need to pass a national certification exam in their chosen specialty. The American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) and the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) are two widely recognized organizations that offer NP certification exams. Studying for the exams can take a significant amount of time and effort, resulting in a diverse time range concerning how long it takes a nurse to complete all of their requisite NP work.
After passing the certification exam, individuals must apply for state licensure as a nurse practitioner, which may require additional documentation or examination. Each state has its own specific requirements for NPs.
You may have noticed a lot of tentative language in this article. “Depending on where you live.” Unfortunately, guidelines dictating what nurse practitioners can and cannot do are very regional. Some states will allow nurse practitioners to prescribe medicine, make diagnoses, and open up their own practices.
Other states require the close supervision of a medical doctor. Naturally, the rules surrounding nurse practitioners have a significant impact on what sort of difference they will be able to make for the overall healthcare landscape.
Are These Limitations Holding the Healthcare Industry Back?
Right now there isn’t necessarily a definitive answer. Supporters of strict limitations on nurse practitioners cite the following reasons:
- Reduces the chances of medical errors: Though nurse practitioners are well-trained, medical doctors typically go through significantly more schooling. Some people feel that these differences in training can have a significant impact on patient outcomes.
- Increased medical collaboration: It’s also worth noting that medicine benefits from multiple perspectives—something that mandated MD supervision naturally encourages. When doctors have to sign off on all of the decisions made by nurse practitioners it means that patients are getting a second set of eyes on their medical records. This can help reduce the capacity for human error.
- More specialization: Nurse practitioners who cannot open their own practice may feel more incentivized to specialize, helping to fill in more gaps in the healthcare landscape.
Of course, there is also a flipside. Studies indicate that nurse practitioners are an effective replacement for general practitioners. Allowing them positions of greater autonomy can help avoid healthcare bottlenecks. This makes it easier for patients to access high-quality, affordable preventative care.
Another downside to strict regulations is that they can discourage people from becoming nurse practitioners at all. Unfortunately, this may have the effect of driving some people away from medicine entirely. Many people decide they want to be nurse practitioners because they are burned out from, or simply not interested in, traditional bedside nursing.
If they are not able to find the autonomy they are looking for as a nurse practitioner, they may simply move on to a different line of work.
That’s unfortunate because as we’ve seen in this article, nurse practitioners play a vital role in offering communities with a vast array of perspectives and specialities.