Last updated: February 19. 2013 5:56PM - 757 Views

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TAKE A rapidly aging population in the United States: The number of people older than age 65 is expected to double between now and 2030, bringing with it a population with complex and chronic health care conditions.

Couple it with a decrease in the number of primary care physicians: According to the American Association of Medical Colleges, there was a 27 percent decrease in the number of medical school graduates choosing a career in primary care or family medicine between 2002 and 2007, and the number is not increasing.

Add a dramatic increase in the number of Americans seeking care: It is anticipated that as many as 32 million Americans will join the ranks of the insured under the Affordable Care Act.

Such factors create a scenario for a health care crisis about how to provide care to more patients who need it. But there are alternatives for the issue of how to provide enough qualified health care professionals. Enter the nurse practitioner. Although these advanced practice nurses have been around for more than 40 years, their role has never been more important than in today's health care environment. Yet many consumers don't understand the role of the nurse practitioner, the quality of care that they provide and how important they can be in ensuring excellent care for patients.

National Nurse Practitioner Week, marked annually in mid-November, offers a chance to examine how these health care professionals fit into the future of U.S. health care.

America's 180,000 nurse practitioners are skilled diagnosticians and clinicians. Registered nurses with bachelor's degrees pursue the nurse practitioner certification after earning an advanced degree at the master's or doctoral level. They can diagnose and treat acute and chronic illness and prescribe medication. About 89 percent of them specialize in primary care areas, such as family care, women's health and gerontology. Eighteen percent practice in rural settings, where access to quality health care is often a greater problem than in cities.

Laws vary state to state governing nurse practitioners. In Pennsylvania, nurse practitioners work in collaboration with physicians in various health care settings.

Patients offered the opportunity to see a nurse practitioner instead of the primary care doctor might wonder, Will the quality of care be the same? Studies and statistics show that high-quality patient care and cost-efficiency are proven outcomes when nurse practitioners deliver care. For example:

• A 2008 study of nursing home residents cared for by nurse practitioners showed lower incidences of conditions that often plague elderly patients – such as falls, urinary tract infections and bedsores. The study found that the chronic conditions of these patients were managed well by the nurse practitioner.

• Comparable outcomes for patients seen by both doctors and nurse practitioners – such as lower blood pressure and other improvements in conditions – were reported in a 2000 study of more than 1,300 patients published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Study after study confirms that patients receive good care and health care costs are lower when nurse practitioners are involved. That's good news for patients concerned about quality and cost. But perhaps more important, it's important news for those wondering how to manage the future of health care in the United States.

Encouraging more registered nurses to pursue advanced degrees in nursing and to earn nurse practitioner certification will help to ensure that the increasing needs of patients will be met.

Nursing programs such as the one at Wilkes University are adding programs that combine traditional clinical experience with online coursework to make such programs easier for busy professionals to access. A nurse working full time in a hospital or community setting such as a physician practice needs options for pursuing such degrees.

Consumers can ensure that their health care needs are met by using nurse practitioners – and by recognizing and promoting their value as part of our health care system.

America's 180,000 nurse

practitioners are skilled

diagnosticians and clinicians.

Deborah Zbegner is director of the Graduate Nursing Program at Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre.

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