The role of nurse practitioners in improving healthcare access


The importance of access to primary care is difficult to ignore. By providing access to primary healthcare, nations and medical professionals can reduce inequities, allow for early detection of diseases and manage chronic diseases at a lower cost. Unfortunately, this […]

The importance of access to primary care is difficult to ignore. By providing access to primary healthcare, nations and medical professionals can reduce inequities, allow for early detection of diseases and manage chronic diseases at a lower cost. Unfortunately, this is a significant concern in the United States, where there is a growing shortage of family physicians and primary care doctors.

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, roughly 13% of medical school graduates pursue family medicine. The same data added that this rate must increase by at least 25% to give the nation adequate access to primary healthcare. So, you might ask about the nation’s best line of defense to address these issues then.

Enter nurse practitioners. Keep scrolling as this article discusses nurse practitioners’ vital role in closing the primary care gap and enhancing healthcare access for everyone.

Why is there a gap in primary care?

Before going into the nitty-gritty of the nurse practitioner’s role in closing the gap in primary care, let’s first examine why such a disparity exists. Although reasons vary in different states, some of these influences can be attributed to economic decisions, availability of rural medicine, medical resources and workload.

A study published in the weekly peer-reviewed journal BMJ added that the absence of an assigned primary care provider in the urban patient population also contributed to this overwhelming discrepancy. Other existing challenges, such as an aging baby boomer population and healthcare policy changes, are straining the country’s ability to bridge the gap.

Recent data shows roughly 76 million people were born between 1946 and 1964. Also known as the baby boomer generation, some of its oldest members retired in 2012, while others are expected to reach the social security retirement age by 2030. With most members of this generation expected to rely on medical programs for post-retirement care, this inevitably further strains healthcare resources.

How can nurse practitioners address this issue?

With the demand for primary care already surging, you might ask how nurse practitioners can meet the increasing need. While some people may think that nurse practitioners are limited to checking the patient’s vitals and reporting their status to the attending physician, they have a much more involved role to play.

Unlike RNs, nurse practitioners can act as primary care providers to their patients. This means they can care for their patients without supervision from a physician in several states. They can also write prescriptions and order diagnostic examinations when required.

Depending on their employer’s and patient’s needs, a nurse practitioner’s day may involve recording a patient’s medical history and documenting symptoms to create and implement treatment plans. They may also perform minor medical procedures and coordinate with other medical professionals and specialists to ensure care continuity.

Now that the roles and responsibilities have been established, we will tackle the strategies nurse practitioners implement to combat primary care shortages and improve healthcare access.

Nurse practitioners can act as primary care providers

The scope of practice for a nurse practitioner and a doctor are similar when considering primary care responsibilities. Like physicians, nurse practitioners interpret laboratory results to make accurate diagnoses and develop a comprehensive plan of care that can include both pharmacologic and non-pharmacologic treatments as needed.

In short, a primary care nurse practitioner combines nursing skills and a practitioner mindset. This can be especially helpful in rural settings where specialty providers and physicians are lacking. There has been a shortage of medical care available in rural American areas, with primary care physicians often retiring without replacements.

In addition, primary care physicians in rural areas often do not have the support of a subspecialist. According to PubMed Central, the federal government projects a shortage of over 20,000 physicians by 2025. This healthcare gap increases the likelihood of longer patient waiting times. This, in turn, may prompt patients to ignore treatment altogether, increasing their risk of developing difficult to treat conditions.

As nurse practitioners can work more independently and perform the duties and responsibilities of physicians, they can offset the shortage of primary care providers in rural America. In doing so, they are able to detect and treat chronic diseases earlier and increase the likelihood of preventing the next pandemic.

Nurse practitioners provide more cost-effective care

With the United States having one of the highest healthcare costs worldwide, it is no surprise that access to healthcare has been mediocre. Recent data shows US healthcare spending reached $4.3tn or roughly $12,900 per person. Unlike other nations, the US healthcare system is complex, and most expenses are market driven.

A recent study reveals the primary care offered by a nurse practitioner is roughly 11 to 29% less expensive than care provided by a physician. Nurse practitioners deliver similar results to physicians, and the same study found no difference in patient health status between those who see doctors and those whose primary care provider is a nurse practitioner.

Nurse practitioners also implement a personalized approach to primary care. Nurse practitioners start their careers as nurses, where they spend time talking to patients and understanding the psychological and emotional stresses involved in their care. This allows them to provide personalized care to every patient and ensure their healthcare needs are addressed appropriately.

No two days are the same in healthcare. What may have worked one day for one patient may not deliver similar results to the next one. By providing personalized treatment, nurse practitioners can empower patients to make informed health decisions, increase patient engagement and achieve better healthcare outcomes.

Nurse practitioners can advocate for improved healthcare access

Advocacy is one of the core pillars of the nursing profession. With the rising complexity and a fragmented healthcare system, marginalized communities and individuals often feel overwhelmed and need more crucial information to make educated decisions.

With advanced education and extensive experience caring for patients, nurse practitioners can serve as advocates by providing a much-needed voice for marginalized individuals and communities. In doing so, they can directly advocate for improved healthcare access in specific areas where the need for care is apparent.

By advocating for improved healthcare access, nurse practitioners can ensure government officials gather relevant and accurate information, such as population age distributions, economic obstacles, community health conditions and employment statistics. This way, they can create and pass healthcare bills and laws to close the gap and enhance healthcare access.

Nurse practitioners bring a holistic perspective to care

As mentioned above, healthcare often involves dealing with individuals and communities from different walks of life. Similar to operating a business wherein the importance of understanding social and ethical issues is paramount, you must learn to consider every patient’s social and cultural differences when conducting treatment. One of the ways nurse practitioners can improve healthcare access to marginalized groups is by providing a holistic perspective to care.

As nurse practitioners were once registered nurses, there is a good chance they know the inner workings of holistic nursing. This means they know how to treat patients as a whole person as opposed to individual parts. Through holistic nursing, nurse practitioners can promote their patients’ physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing.

Although there is no one-size-fits-all approach, a holistic approach to care involves establishing trust between the care provider and the patient. This requires considering social, cultural and spiritual differences and eliminating the barriers patients encounter when addressing their healthcare issues.

Why should you become a nurse practitioner?

Now that you have a basic understanding of the roles and responsibilities of nurse practitioners in bridging the primary care gap and improving healthcare access, below are some of the reasons why you should consider becoming one:

  • Work with autonomy

As mentioned above, nurse practitioners have significant control over their practice. They can practice in more than half of the states independently. This autonomy allows nurses to make educated decisions and ensures they have complete oversight in treating a patient.

  • Job security

Job security is another reason that a career as a nurse practitioner is a good option. You will never be out of the job with physician shortages and the aging baby boomer population. Recent data by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals that the demand for nurse practitioners will increase by 52% by 2030.

  • Competitive salary

While money is not the reason that most nurse practitioners first enter the field, earning a handsome paycheck is part of becoming one. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for nurse practitioners is roughly $120,000, depending on the market, specialty and education level.

  • Career advancement

As a nurse practitioner, you won’t be limited to working in a clinical setting. You can also conduct crucial healthcare research, educate other nurses and advocate for nurses or patients. This variety allows you to expand your horizons and work towards something you are passionate about.

How to become a nurse practitioner

In this section, we provide a step-by-step guide on how you can become a nurse practitioner:

  • Become a registered nurse

The initial step towards becoming a nurse practitioner is earning an undergraduate nursing degree. Traditional undergraduate nursing degree programs typically take four years to complete. Depending on your chosen academic institution, you will learn through nursing-specific coursework and hands-on clinical training while working towards your undergraduate degree.

After earning your undergraduate degree, the next step is to pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses. This adaptive computerized assessment involves 145 questions and is personalized based on the test-taker’s performance.

  • Gain nursing experience

While you can skip this step and go directly to studying for an advanced nursing degree, gaining nursing experience before admission is highly recommended. This allows you to explore specialties to help you decide on a future nursing practitioner focus. Some of the most common nurse practitioner specialty areas are adult gerontology, family nursing, neonatal nursing and pediatric nursing.

  • Enroll in a nursing graduate program

A Master’s degree is the minimum academic requirement to become a nurse practitioner. Earning an advanced degree takes two to four years, depending on whether you attend part-time or full-time. While studying an advanced nursing degree program at a prestigious academic institution such as Texas Woman’s University, you will learn more specialized nursing skills. Texas Woman’s University also provides clinical placement assistance to help you locate a nurse practitioner clinical placement center where you can apply your skills to real-world issues.

  • Acquire a license

Once you’ve finished your degree, the next thing you will need to do is to obtain a license. It is worth noting that this is different from your RN license. Every US state requires nurse practitioners to have a license, and these requirements often vary. Typically, the requirements include holding a master’s degree, a valid and state-registered nurse license, passing a national certification exam and completing a specific number of clinical experience hours.

  • Earn certifications

As a nurse practitioner, you may want to earn additional nursing certifications. The importance of certifications in a competitive nursing field cannot be understated. In particular job markets and specialties, nursing certifications can give you a strategic advantage when seeking a position.

At a basic level, nursing certifications enhance your job prospects. They can validate your professional credibility and specialized knowledge and demonstrate superior clinical competence. In addition, it demonstrates your ability to fully invest in providing your patients with the best care possible. Depending on the specialty area in which you want to practice, some organizations that offer certifications include the American Nurses Credentialing Center, the American Association of Nurse Practitioners and the Pediatric Nursing Certification Board.

Final thoughts

As you can see, a nurse practitioner’s roles and responsibilities in bridging the US healthcare gap are wide-ranging. Consider becoming one by following the above-mentioned steps and work towards changing the world one patient at a time.