Doctor or Nurse Practitioner: Choosing a Primary Care Provider

GoodwinCarrieNP300X200Imagine you’ve just moved to the area. You know how important it is to have a relationship with a health care provider, so you call the local practice to see if they are accepting new patients. The office shares that you could become the patient of one of the practice’s doctors or a nurse practitioner. How do you decide? It might be helpful to know a little about doctors, nurse practitioners, and their qualifications before making this decision. Some of the most common questions and their answers are below.

What is a primary care doctor? This may seem like an overly simple question, but it is useful to consider. Primary care doctors perform all of the tasks necessary to help you maintain your health and wellbeing. They conduct physical exams and well-child checks, diagnose and treat common illnesses and injuries, help you manage chronic conditions, prescribe medications, order and interpret tests, coordinate referrals to specialists, and manage a person’s overall health care. They may also help with procedures such as wound repair, splinting, skin biopsies, joint injections, and more.

What is a Nurse Practitioner? Nurse Practitioners (NPs) are Registered Nurses who have obtained additional specialized education and training that allows them to do many of the same things doctors do, including managing chronic illnesses and prescribing medications. Many also perform injections, biopsies, splinting, and more. NPs often have particular strength in patient education and helping patients make plans to improve their health.

How are NPs trained? NPs are extensively educated and trained in the discipline of nursing, which is the care of people who are sick or injured. They have additional training in certain aspects of medicine, which allows them to serve as a person’s primary care provider and perform tasks such as prescribing medication and ordering tests, for example.

To become an NP, one needs to earn a master’s or doctoral degree in nursing through a specialized program, which includes 6 – 8 years of college. Once NPs complete their program, they must then pass a credentialing examination and become board certified before they can get their licenses to practice. In addition to the specialized education and training they get in their NP program, many NPs are registered nurses with many years of clinical training and experience under their belts.

How are physicians trained? Physicians have extensive education and training in the discipline of medicine, which is the treatment of diseases using drugs and procedures. They typically have four years of medical school on top of an undergraduate degree and three or more years of training in their chosen specialty. Some complete fellowships that provide even more specialized training.

How are physicians and NPs similar? Physicians and NPs are held to the same standards of care in terms of quality, safety, and patient outcomes. Like physicians, NPs will consult with their colleagues and/or specialists if a patient needs care that the NP cannot provide or has a problem outside the scope of the NPs experience and training.

The best health care provider addresses your health concerns in a way that makes sense to you. The good news is that you can try each of the available providers to see which one you feel would be the best health care partner for you.

Bob Schwartz, MD, is a primary care doctor at SVMC Northshire Campus in Manchester, VT, and the associate medical director of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Putnam Physicians. “Health Matters” is a column meant to educate readers about their personal health, public health matters, and public policy as it affects health care.