How to Choose the Right Nurse Practitioner as Your Primary Care Provider
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When you call to make an appointment with your physician, you may be given the option to see a nurse practitioner (NP) instead. Although the idea of seeing a nurse might give you pause, NPs are highly qualified healthcare professionals who provide the same (or similar) care as physicians.
NPs have become a valuable part of the U.S. healthcare system, increasing access to vital services. For instance, areas with shortages of medical doctors (MDs) have benefitted from nurse practitioners. Many insurance carriers even offer the option to choose NPs as primary care providers.
Read on to learn more about the advantages of choosing an NP for your healthcare and how to select the right provider.
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Why You Might Choose a Nurse Practitioner Instead of a Doctor
Depending on your insurance policy, you may have the option to select a nurse practitioner, such as a family nurse practitioner (FNP), as a primary care provider. There are several reasons this can be beneficial. One is access to care. In many cases, it's easier to get an appointment with a nurse practitioner when you need one, without having to wait weeks or months to schedule a doctor visit.
Depending on the location, there may be a shortage of medical doctors and pediatricians. NPs provide essential health services to areas that are so-called "medical deserts." Patients can receive immediate care without traveling great distances.
A nurse practitioner provides the same high-quality care as a doctor and may even have more experience than an MD. Some NPs have decades more experience than physicians who only recently finished a residency. According to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, NPs can order and assess laboratory tests, prescribe medicine (either independently or with collaboration with a physician, depending on the state), develop treatment plans, and perform other clinical duties.
Tina M. Baxter, a nurse practitioner and founder of Baxter Professional Services, LLC, adds that NPs can often give more in-depth care.
"NPs typically can spend more time with the patient," she says, "and NPs have been trained to teach patients about the importance of managing their chronic health conditions. Nurse practitioners are excellent at coordinating care, managing chronic health conditions, and addressing acute healthcare needs."
Research shows that the care provided by NPs is similar to physicians, without any statistically significant differences in outcomes. In some areas, NPs even demonstrate better outcomes: Patients under the care of NPs have fewer hospitalizations, hospital readmissions, and emergency room visits. Patients also report higher satisfaction with their care.
Nurse Practitioner versus Doctor: What's the Difference?
Some people are under the impression that receiving care from a nurse practitioner means they aren't getting the highest level of care. Some view nurse practitioners as less qualified than medical doctors, and seeing one means they aren't getting what they are paying for.
Much of this perception stems from the word "nurse." Nurses are valued for their skills as caregivers and educators, but some do not realize the level of education and training that NPs receive. In response, many nurse practitioner programs are switching to the doctor of nursing practice model to avoid being seen as "just a nurse." Some providers refer to NPs as "advanced practice providers" instead of nurse practitioners.
Baxter points out that doctors and nurse practitioners typically collaborate to deliver the best care for patients. Depending on the state, NPs may not be able to practice independently and must work collaboratively with an MD. Many NPs choose to have a collaborative relationship with an MD even if not required. Most practices employ both MDs and nurse practitioners to provide adequate care.
""Physicians and nurse practitioners work together using their individual skill sets to help the patient," Baxter says. "Physicians are equipped to handle complex cases and care such as surgery and complicated medical procedures and are adept at managing the complexities of certain conditions. It is not that one profession is better than the other, simply that the level of practice may differ in scope."
Factors to Consider When Choosing a Nurse Practitioner
The most important factor to consider when choosing any healthcare provider is how you relate to them. Your primary care provider plays an important role in your overall well-being, so you want to feel comfortable.
An NP should show an interest in getting to know you, answer your questions in a way that you understand, and encourage you to be an active participant in your care.
"Trust your gut. You may not 'click' with every provider and that's okay," Baxter says. "Choose someone you feel comfortable with and don't be afraid to ask questions."
Look for a nurse practitioner with a relevant specialty. There are many types of nurses, but an FNP is trained to work with all ages. Others may specialize as a pediatric nurse practitioner, women's health NP, or another population. If you have a chronic condition like diabetes, for example, you want to work with a provider with experience and an interest in that area.
It's also important to choose an NP with a care philosophy that aligns with your preferences and any cultural, religious, or personal beliefs. You want a provider who is sensitive to and respects you as an individual.
For example, members of the LGBTQ+ community may benefit from a provider knowledgeable in LGBTQ+ patient health issues affecting the community and is sensitive to their concerns. Also, some care providers may not allow delaying vaccines or skipping some in a series.
"Make an informed decision," Baxter cautions. "If you have any doubt, don't be afraid to ask for a second opinion. Most providers won't be offended."
How to Find a Provider to Meet Your Specific Needs
When selecting an NP, Baxter recommends checking with your insurance first. "I would contact your individual insurance carrier to find out who is in the network for your insurance plan to avoid any unnecessary surprises with the bill."
Ask your friends, family, and coworkers for their recommendations as well. With more people turning to NPs for care, you likely know someone who can share their experience and offer insight.
Online services can help you compare your options and select the right provider. These include:
Before selecting an NP, do your homework. Call the office to confirm the practice is accepting new patients and how long you'll have to wait for an appointment. Ask about care options, such as virtual appointments, how prescription refills are handled, whether you can email the office with questions, and how test results are reported.
- Nurse Practitioner vs. Physician Assistant: Differences in Roles, Requirements, and Salaries
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- How to Become a Nurse Practitioner
- FNP vs. ACNP: What Are the Differences?
Meet Our Contributor
Tina Baxter, APRN, GNP-BC
Tina M. Baxter is an advanced practice registered nurse and a board-certified gerontological nurse practitioner through the American Nurses Credentialing Center. Baxter resides in Indiana and has been a registered nurse for over 20 years and a nurse practitioner for 14 years. She is the owner of Baxter Professional Services, LLC, a consulting firm which provides legal nurse consulting services for attorneys and insurance professionals, among other services. She is also the founder of The Nurse Shark Academy where she coaches nurses to launch their own businesses.
Elizabeth M. Clarke, FNP, MSN, RN, MSSW
Elizabeth Clarke (Poon) is a board-certified family nurse practitioner who provides primary and urgent care to pediatric populations. She earned a BSN and MSN from the University of Miami.
Clarke is a paid member of our Healthcare Review Partner Network. Learn more about our review partners.
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