Physician Shortages in Rural Communities Lead to Changing Role of Nurse Practitioners

Many rural areas around the country are underserved when it comes to the availability of physicians. In response to this, some medical schools have started offering programs that prepare students for specific careers in rural medicine. Some are even offering loan forgiveness as a way to incentivize enrollment.

Another solution to mitigate the effects of the shortage, which more states are taking advantage of, is allowing nurse practitioners (NPs) to practice basic medicine without the supervision of a physician. Twenty-two states and counting have made this change, largely as a means of providing much-needed medical care to these areas.

New Legislation

Historically, patients have seen NPs as a precursor to meeting with an actual physician – but doctor shortages have turned the tables, making NPs the primary source of care for many routine visits. Now, new legislation such as that imposed in South Dakota has been put into place to enable NPs to practice on their own after undergoing 1,040 hours of physician-supervised care.

Lack of Access Has Consequences

STAT News recently covered the frightening situation that is being a pregnant woman in rural America.

Only about 6 percent of the nation’s OB/GYNs work in rural areas, according to the latest survey numbers from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Yet 15 percent of the country’s population, or 46 million people, live in rural America. As a result, fewer than half of rural women live within a 30-minute drive of the nearest hospital offering obstetric services.

In addition to NPs, South Dakotan midwives will also have full practice authority, eliminating some of the mounting concerns surrounding newborn and maternal deaths. In 2015 alone, the CDC estimated that maternal deaths in rural areas were close to double that of those in metropolitan areas.

The Future of Rural Health Providers Remains Uncertain

While many states are taking steps in the right direction, about half still have yet to follow. As regulations change to allow for better preventative care, those in rural areas can start to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but there’s still a long way to go.

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