Each month, we set the facts straight regarding a popular health and wellness myth.
This month’s myth: Patients must visit a medical doctor for quality care
For many patients, going to a doctor’s appointment doesn’t require a doctor. Instead, they’re part of growing trend of patients who receive care from a physician assistant (PA) or nurse practitioner (NP).
The trend is easy to understand. As our population has rapidly grown—and baby boomers have hit their peak health care years—health care systems have turned to advance practice providers like PAs and NPs to help them meet the explosive demand.
In the state of Maryland, NPs and PAs are authorized to provide most of the same services as a physician. They can diagnose and treat illnesses, order and interpret lab tests, write prescriptions and more. The difference is in the course of training they opt to take.
The PA course of study follows the medical school model—a rigorous combination of classroom and clinical instruction—at the master’s degree level. During their program, PAs get in-depth training in a number of specialty rotations, giving them a broad range of skills to tap in to when treating patients.
In order to practice, PAs must sit for a certification exam with the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants once every six years. A properly certified PA should have the Certified Physician Assistant credential (P.A.-C.) after his or her name.
NPs must have at least two years of experience as a registered nurse and four years of clinical-based education before they can even be considered for a spot in a master’s- or doctoral-level NP program. Once enrolled, NP students learn a nursing-model approach to delivering physician-quality care. That means learning to see the whole patient—not just medically, but also what might be going on with the patient’s family or home life.
All NPs must be licensed by the Maryland State Board of Nurses to practice in this state. (Look for the C.R.N.P. or F.N.P. credential after his or her name for validation.) In addition to their state certification, NPs must undergo a board exam and certification in their area of specialty by a national credentialing organization. F.N.P.-B.C. for example, stands for Board-Certified Family Nurse Practitioner. NPs with this credential are board certified in the areas of primary care and family medicine.
Regardless of the type of provider you see, the experience and quality of care should be virtually identical. A qualified NP or PA has much of the same hands-on experience, reads the same research and uses the same treatment tools as a physician.
In the end, it’s about finding a provider who makes you feel confident in your plan of care.