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If you've been to your family doctor's office lately, you may notice there's a different kind of system that soon, will become the norm. Further more, what's being done is proving to both patients AND doctors at some practices, that the new system is working on "Improving Access to Healthcare."

There's a big issue in the American healthcare system right now -- There are simply not enough doctors to treat the growing number of patients. The Association of American Medical Colleges reports the system is being taxed by nearly 15 million elderly patients, in addition to 32 million patients under the Affordable Care Act. 

The solution? Nurse Practitioners. 

It's Nurse Practitioners, or NP's, that are stepping up and taking on the role of being your primary care doctor. They are handling many of the routine cases like ear infections, strep throat, cold and flu cases, and routine surgery follow-ups.

Patient Alexa Morningstar called to see her primary care doctor at the South Bend Clinic, when she was experiencing flu-like symptoms. She was told the next available appointment was in about 3 weeks, but was given the option to see a Nurse Practitioner. Morningstar says, "I chose to go to the NP because they could fit me in within I think the same week, and so I thought well I need to get in. So I didn't mind at all. The nurse came in and brought me back to the room, and when the NP came in, she went through my history, she sat there, looked me in the eye, asked me all the questions that the same thing a doctor would ask. I never felt like she skipped anything... I don't notice much of a difference to be honest." 

It's Nurse Practitioners -- or NP's -- like Colleen Shay at The South Bend Clinic who are stepping in and making a dramatic difference in how quickly people are treated. Shay says, "I am old school nurse practitioner. I graduated about 28 years ago. That experience was great. The training was great. But mostly, I have learned from clinical experience. So working alongside a physician over the years has been my best training." 

Shay works with Dr. Brad Scott, a primary care physician and says, "I can see between 16 and 20 patients a day give or take with what's going on," and that's close to the same amount Dr. Scott sees per day. Shay says NP's can write prescriptions, make assessments, and can make diagnosis. She says, "If we did have any questions about a diagnosis or further treatment, we can access the primary doctor and ask him." Dr. Scott says, "There's a lot more data. A lot more information. It's hard to keep up on all that data. So nurse practitioners have really helped in that regard... The practice of medicine has changed a lot." 

So WHY are Nurse Practitioners becoming the NEW primary provider? The answer is simple. There's a DRAMATIC shortage of primary care doctors, and that shortage is expected to get even more severe. In fact, the Bureau of Health Professionals predicts that by 2020, there will be a shortage of 20,400 primary care doctors. The Association of American Medical Colleges predicts just 5 years after that in 2025, the shortage will grow even further, and the medical community could lack between 46,000 and 90,000 primary doctors. 

With patient demands being so high, and the number of doctors decreasing, NP's are actually making a dramatic difference in how quickly people are getting in to see their doctor. This in turn frees up the physician up to work on more complex cases, or to do more surgeries. Dr. Scott says, "It's very helpful that they're here, and we review all the charts!"

Nurse practitioners are filling the void beyond just family medicine. Holly Kelly is a Nurse Practitioner who specializes in dermatology. She works under a physician who has a three month waiting list. Kelly says, "We're limited on how many patients we can see a day... and everyone has skin! I do pretty much everything that she would do. I just don't do surgeries." From treating acne to skin rashes, all the way to psoriasis and even cancer diagnosis, Kelly has the education AND the training.

As always when there's change, people become leery and skeptical, especially when it comes to their health, and some are very reluctant to be taken on by a NP rather than their primary care doctor. Kelly says she's experienced skepticism first hand, from patients who insist on seeing the doctor. She says, "I have had that happen a few times because they had never seen a nurse practitioner. I think it's important for patients to know that Nurse Practitioners are competent. We're trained to do this. We've gone to school. We know what we're doing."

But because there's such a long wait list, once patients realize they'd have to wait 3 months to make that happen, they typically are willing to let the NP do the examination. Kelly says, "I think of the three times that's happened, they've all come back to me." 

The future of healthcare will require more and more patients to accept nurse practitioners, or they'll have to put off getting care. Something Morningstar says was an easy decision saying, "When I've seen the Nurse Practitioner, they've done a very thorough job. I've never felt like they forgot anything or didn't treat me the same as my doctor would." 

Primary care doctors aren't the only doctors in demand. There's also a need for specialty surgeons. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges the BIG THREE are Orthopedic Surgeons, Urologic Surgeons and Oncologists -- or cancer physicians -- all because the population is getting older. With nearly 15 million elderly patients across the country, those types of surgeons deal regularly with the elderly.   >Watch Video

Posted on July 28, 2015