Can Nurses Replace Doctors?
Patients are increasingly turning to nurse practitioners instead of physicians for a number of reasons. For one thing, they may be more accessible since physicians’ offices are sometimes overcrowded and an appointment is hard to come by. It can also help lower the cost of medical treatments since nurses don’t bill out as high as doctors do. Mostly it’s because people are coming to realize that nurse practitioners are extremely capable and knowledgeable health professionals that can offer a high level of excellent care. In fact, because of their background in nursing, some even say that nurse practitioners have a unique ability to make stronger connections with their patients.
As more nurse practitioners open their own practices or become more commonplace in medical facilities, the big question that’s been on the mind of those in the medical community is if nurses can actually replace doctors. There is no simple answer, but there’s no doubt that nurse practitioners are certainly making an impact in the healthcare world.
Take a look at how nurse practitioners compare with doctors, and why in some cases, their services might be interchangeable.
What can nurse practitioners do
NPs have to go well beyond the education and training of a regular RN in order to practice at that advanced level. For starters, you must complete a master's or doctoral degree program, and then complete advanced practice nursing licensure, which usually includes on-the-job experience and passing exams. From there, you could even go on to obtain an NP specialization such as in pediatrics, gerontology, or diabetic care.
The American Association of Nurse Practitioners 1 (AANP) sums it up this way: “As clinicians that blend clinical expertise in diagnosing and treating health conditions with an added emphasis on disease prevention and health management, NPs bring a comprehensive perspective to health care.”
So what exactly do NPs do on a daily basis? They basically cover the gamut of patient care, helping people manage their health, prevent and treat disease, and provide health education. Nurse practitioners can prescribe medicine, and 97 percent of them do, according to AANP. They also perform diagnostic exams and make diagnoses.
Where it gets tricky is that an NP’s scope of practice guidelines do vary depending on the state in which they work. As of now, 21 states give NPs “full practice” 2 status, meaning they can perform all of the medical functions independently, without having to be supervised by a physician. They may also open up their own practices, just as medical doctors do. But again, not all states offer this same level of autonomy.
For more information about what NPs do, click here .
The other 29 states require nurse practitioners to work under restricted practice regulations. In most cases, that means they have to collaborate or work under the supervision of a physician, either one who is in the same physical location, or consulting with him or her via phone/email.
Working as an NP in a state with reduced or restricted practice regulations could mean that you’re not allowed to prescribe certain medications on your own, according to GraduateNursingEdu.org 3 . For instance, in Alabama and Florida, NPs do not have the authority to prescribe controlled substances. In other states, NPs have other restrictions or limitations on drug type, dosing, or length of supply. Then there are some states in which the prescription must include the name of a collaborating physician.
Besides state limitations, the other big difference between NPs and physicians is that NPs typically do not perform surgeries. They might perform some minor treatments or procedures, but doctors are still needed for more complex surgeries.
Where NPs fit in
So the ultimate question: Can nurse practitioners replace doctors? The answer isn’t as simple as yes or no. NPs are certainly expected to have adequate education and training so that they can provide excellent patient care, assuming they are practicing in a state that allows it. However, doctors would argue that they have a much more extensive background and scope of knowledge, and therefore aren’t replaceable per se.
In essence, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. NPs are helping to fill in the gaps in healthcare, where there might be physician shortages. For routine checkups, common ailments, or manageable chronic conditions, a nurse practitioner can be a great option. However, just as you’d seek the second opinion of a specialist for more serious medical issue, the same deal goes when you’re under the care of a nurse practitioner. In some situations – such as if you have a diagnosis beyond the expertise of the NP, or if you are considering surgery or specialized treatment -- you might want to seek the advice of a medical doctor or specialist who has more experience with such cases.
All in all, nurse practitioners play an important role in today’s ever-growing healthcare system. They provide the perfect mix of expertise, competence, and compassion that helps many patients get the care they need.
Dawn Papandrea is a Staten Island, NY-based freelance writer who specializes in personal finance, parenting, and lifestyle topics. Her work has appeared in Family Circle, WomansDay.com, Parents, CreditCards.com, and more.