Nurse Practitioners Slowly Gain More Access to Patients; Could Relieve Anticipated Physician Shortage

Thursday, June 5th, 2014
This post was written by Cheryl Miller

Patients are slowly gaining access to care provided by advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) as a number of states have taken steps to loosen restrictions on highly educated nurse practitioners (NPs).

Minnesota became the 19th state, plus the District of Columbia, tooffer patients full and direct access to NP service. According to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP), it is an important step that improves access to care and more effectively uses NPs to meet the state’s growing healthcare needs. Officials state the following in a press release:

This comes at a time when the changing demographics of health care, especially primary care, necessitates that states make full use of the nurse practitioner workforce. The nursing community is committed to addressing these challenges in future sessions to ensure that patients have a choice of health provider and receive full access to the health services they need.

Maryland was one of the first states to loosen existing restrictions, according to a story from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). In 2010 the state replaced its requirement for lengthy collaborative agreements between NPs and physicians with less cumbersome “attestation statements” that identify a physician who is willing to collaborate when clinically necessary but do not require physician signatures.

The law eliminated situations where patients were left without care if their physician died, retired, or left the state. NPs can now open practices and serve larger patient populations. This has helped with the primary care shortage in Maryland.

And the shortage is not limited to Maryland. As the Healthcare Intelligence Network reported in a previous news story in 2013, the RAND Corporation predicted that as more Americans seek health services once newly insured under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), physician shortages could worsen, and reach as high as 45,000 by 2025.

And the recent Veterans Affairs problem that is making headlines around the world has been attributed to a shortage of primary care physicians (PCPs), as documented here in the New York Times.

Expanding the role of nurse practitioners and physician assistants could help eliminate the anticipated shortage of PCPs over the next decade, the RAND report suggested.

Other states that have taken steps to ease NP restrictions in recent years include the following:

  • In Utah, state Medicaid officials agreed to recognize and reimburse NPs for primary care services for beneficiaries.
  • Oregon’s governor signed a law that allows NPs and clinical nurse specialists to dispense prescription drugs.
  • In Iowa, the state Supreme Court ruled that NPs can supervise fluoroscopy, a high-tech X-ray, without physician supervision.
  • In 2011, North Dakota scrapped a requirement that NPs work in collaboration with physicians.

But these changes are not without their controversy. Some feel that it goes too far, that the supervision of a physician should be maintained. According to this editorial in the Times-Herald Record, “though well intentioned, such proposals underestimate the clinical importance of physicians’ expertise and overestimate the cost-effectiveness of nurse practitioners.”

Other areas of healthcare pose the same challenge. In Minnesota, a state law allows dental therapists to work under the supervision of dentists and perform many of the tasks they do, something that has been opposed nationally and in most other states.

But the field of NPs is also changing. First created in 1965 to meet the growing demand for basic pediatric care, by 2015 all new NPs will need to be trained at the doctorate level as a Doctor of Nursing Practice, and 104 new DNP programs are in development, according to a new infographic from Maryville University Master of Science in Nursing Online.

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