The Other Primary Care Provider

Not a doctor, but not a traditional medical assistant, a nurse practitioner combines the skills of physician and nurse to offer advanced but personal care to patients. Nurse practitioners are registered nurses who have earned master’s degrees and undergone clinical training to provide a wide range of health-care services. They conduct physical exams, prescribe medications and order diagnostic tests. At least 145,000 are believed to be working in the U.S. today.

The field got its start in the 1960s in response to a nationwide shortage of physicians, but the role its members have taken on within the health-care field has changed since then. In their early stage, NPs emphasized traditional components of nursing that complimented the medical doctor, says Melanie Witte, a nurse practitioner at the UW Health Diabetes/Endocrine Clinic. “NPs still approach patients with a nursing perspective, but there is more focus on diagnosis and treatment plans including ordering tests, performing procedures and determining a treatment plan,” she says.

Yet nurse practitioners’ focus on patient education, health promotion and disease prevention sets them apart from traditional physicians.

“Nurse practitioners care for basically healthy children and adults with typical health-care needs,” says Cary Liebl, a nurse practitioner in the obstetrics and gynecology department at the Dean West Clinic. “They focus on well-being and preventing health problems. Physicians, on the other hand, are trained to treat complex health problems which may require complicated treatment or surgery.”

Cost of care also differentiates nurse practitioners from doctors. Treatment costs ten to forty percent less when given by an NP as opposed to a physician, according to the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners.

NPs are sometimes confused with physician assistants. The main difference between the two is that physician assistants must work under the supervision of a doctor, while nurse practitioners may work independently or in collaboration with a physician. Many nurse practitioners say their greatest hurdle to overcome in their careers is combating the confusion about their role in the medical field.

“I am aware that the biggest challenge our profession faces is to be recognized and understood for who we are and what it is we do within the health care system,” Liebl says.

– Katie Vaughn

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