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Family Nurse Practitioners Lead the Way to Health Equity

For the past decade, there have been repeated warnings of physician shortages. Due to a range of circumstances, including unprecedented population growth, an uptick in older patients with chronic comorbidities and nearly half of physicians soon to retire, the threat of provider shortages is worrisome. It can severely limit access to care and further expand health disparities, particularly in areas with fewer healthcare workers and resources.

Family nurse practitioners (FNPs) are expected to bridge the gaps in care created by physician shortages. Their expanded scope of practice affords them greater autonomy and responsibilities to provide family-focused services in a range of primary care settings. Plus, the transition to nurse practitioner is often streamlined, allowing entry into the advanced practice role more quickly than physicians’ medical school routes.

How Devastating Is the Primary Care Physician Shortage?

According to June 2020 data from the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC), primary care physician shortages may exceed 55K by 2032. More recent AAMC data from June 2021, which takes a deeper look at how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected physician supply and demand, supports the likelihood that primary care shortages of up to 50K will occur by 2034 due to burnout.

Besides population growth and an aging patient demographic needing more complex care, provider shortages are also fueled by physician retirements. Within the next decade, 40% of active physicians will be at least 65 years old.

How Are Physician Shortages Driving Demand for Qualified Nurse Practitioners?

As communities have begun to experience patient care limitations due to physician shortages, the demand for qualified nurse practitioners (especially those specializing in family and primary care) has skyrocketed. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that job openings for “advanced practice registered nurses are likely to be excellent … particularly in medically underserved areas such as inner cities and rural areas.” The demand for nurse practitioners is expected to increase 45% by 2030, a growth of more than 121K available job openings per year.

Can Family Nurse Practitioners Reduce Health Inequities?

The impacts of social determinants of health have been known for years, but the pandemic highlighted how disproportionately these factors affect marginalized populations, their access to care and outcomes. With approximately 80 million people living in Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSAs) where there is just one primary care provider for more than 3,500 patients — these communities historically receive less preventive care services, like immunizations and screenings, and forgo even basic care for highly treatable illnesses.

Although the scope of practice authority varies by state, nurse practitioners can “evaluate and diagnose patients, order and interpret diagnostic tests, and prescribe medications in all 50 states,” says the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP). “Moreover, more than 85% of NPs are trained in primary care — the biggest shortage area in rural communities …Today, NPs represent one in four providers in rural practices, and more in states with full practice authority laws.”

Because family nurse practitioners have similar skill sets to primary care physicians, they can enhance the availability of care where services are lacking or nonexistent, like in lower-income communities or in places where population growth has outpaced physician supply. By increasing the number of family nurse practitioners employed in primary care settings — from private practices and outpatient clinics to urgent care facilities and community health centers — patients will have more choice for their care and experience shorter wait times and improved outcomes.

While the threat of physician shortages remains, family nurse practitioners have the capacity to fill a critical gap in primary care services and lead efforts to ensure that communities throughout the nation achieve greater health equity.

Learn more about UTA’s MSN – Family Nurse Practitioner online program.

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