You’re sick and you need to go to the doctor – or do you? The healthcare system in the United States has changed a lot, and today there are a lot more options for patients to choose from than say, 20 years ago. As the population grows – and grows older in particular – and the number of physicians decline, people are seeing a lot more nurse practitioners (NP) and physician assistants (PA) for not only primary care, but also for acute, urgent, and emergency care. You may have seen an NP or PA in the past, or you may be considering making an appointment to see one in the future. But do you know the difference between the two, and are you getting the same care that you would get if you saw a physician?
Likely, you already understand that NPs and PAs are not physicians, but do you realize that NPs and PAs are not the same? Before making that next appointment, it’s important to know what you are getting. The philosophy of practice that governs the actions of an NP is different than that of a physician or a PA, and this leads to a completely different dynamic of care.
NPs, Pas, and Physicians: How are They the Same and How are They Different?
NPs, PAs, and Physicians often work in the same environment, see the same types of patients, and treat the same illnesses. When treating illnesses, or making recommendations for disease prevention and health promotion, they all follow the same evidence-based guidelines. In fact, studies have shown that all three types of practitioners have very similar patient outcomes when treating the same types of patients. However, as similar as they may seem, the philosophy of their practice and the way in which they are trained is what distinguishes each from the other.
Physicians typically receive a bachelor’s degree from a college or university, prior to attending medical school. They then generally spend four more years in medical school where they study the structure of the body (anatomy), how it works (physiology), as well as the science of disease (pathophysiology) and its treatments. Following medical school, physicians specialize in either a specific patient population, like family medicine or pediatrics, or a particular body system such as cardiology (heart), nephrology (kidney), or pulmonology (lungs). Their specialization training occurs in residency and fellowship programs that can take anywhere from 3 to 6+ years. Physicians can practice independently in all 50 states, and are licensed by state boards of medicine.
In comparison to physicians, most PAs have a master’s degree from an accredited institution after receiving an undergraduate degree in health sciences. While they participate in a significant amount of clinical training during a PA program, they typically do not have any patient experience prior to being admitted to the program. PAs are trained under the medical model. What this means is that they are disease-focused; they study the pathophysiology of illness and how to treat it. This philosophy is reflected in their practice specialty choices, as most PAs specialize in areas of medicine such as orthopedics, surgery, or emergency medicine. PAs are licensed by the state board of medicine and are required to practice under the direct supervision of a physician in all 50 states.
In contrast to both physicians and PAs, NPs are first and foremost nurses. Prior to admission into an advanced practice program, all NPs have a bachelor’s degree and are licensed as registered nurses (RN). Currently, NPs are required to hold a master’s degree to become certified and licensed, however, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing has recommended that future NPs be required to hold a doctorate degree in nursing. While NPs are educated and certified to treat the same patients as PAs, their practice philosophy is their greatest distinction. NPs are trained under the nursing model, which is patient-focused. They approach health and illness through the lens of the whole person, and believe that health can only be achieved when all aspects of the patient, including physical, emotional, spiritual, cultural, and environmental are addressed.
This philosophy is reflected in the certification and specializations available to NPs, which are all patient-centered. These include, family practice, pediatrics, adult and women’s health. NPs are now practicing independently in 22 states and the District of Columbia. And, the board of medicine does not license them; NPs are licensed by state boards of nursing.
Is an NP Qualified to Treat My Problems?
NPs practice in a number of medical environments, including primary care, specialty practices, private practices, clinics, home care, schools, hospitals, hospice, and skilled nursing facilities. Remember that prior to receiving (at minimum) a master’s degree, they were first practicing RNs. During a master’s or doctoral program, they have had extensive education in not only pathophysiology and pharmacology (drug therapy), but also in public policy, ethics, public health, health systems management, and health informatics (health technology). They are uniquely qualified to not only diagnose and treat illness, but to evaluate ways to improve the health care environment for the benefit of patients. They are also licensed and certified, and are required to maintain the certification by participating in continuing education activities, as well as practicing a minimum number of hours in a 5-year period. Multiple studies have indicated that patient outcomes (or how well patients respond to treatment and care) for those treated by NPs are as good, or in some cases better, than those treated by physicians. Additionally, patient satisfaction marks tend to be better for NPs than for physicians.
What Benefits Might I Get From Seeing an NP?
When you see an NP for your healthcare needs, you can expect to receive expert evaluation and recommendations based on the latest evidence and guidelines available. In this regard, there should be no difference between the care you receive from an NP, than from a physician. That said, if the nature of your problem were one that exceeds the expertise of an NP, he or she would refer you to a qualified physician. However, beyond the expected excellence in care, seeing an NP will provide you with a number of additional benefits. You will receive a healthcare provider who is willing to listen to what you have to say, and will take the time to get to know you. You will be valued as a whole person; one who brings a lifetime of experience, cultural beliefs, and unique needs to the table. You will be treated as a partner in your healthcare; empowered to work with your NP to develop a plan that is right for you. You will also gain an advocate who will protect your rights as a patient. If you are looking for a healthcare provider who will partner with you to improve your health, not just treat your illness, then an NP is a good choice for you.
At FamilyCare of Kent, we believe in patient-centered care that is safe and effective. We treat our patients with the same compassion we would want for our loved ones. To meet with any of our exceptional nurse practitioners, call (253) 859-2273 today, or request an appointment online. We look forward to being your partner on the path to good health.