July 07, 2022
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Victor Torres/Stocksy United
With arthritis cases rising and physician numbers declining, here’s why you should know about nurse practitioners.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1 in 4 U.S. adults, or about 54.4 million people, have doctor-diagnosed arthritis.
Contrary to common belief, arthritis can affect people of all ages, with the term arthritis including over 100 different rheumatic diseases and conditions. But one of the most common types of arthritis, osteoarthritis, usually develops at a later age.
With people living longer, we can expect more newly diagnosed arthritis every day. In the United States, the number of adults with arthritis is expected to increase to 67 million by 2030.
But it’s no secret that there’s a shortage of physicians across the country. It’s estimated that by 2025, only 60 percent of primary care practitioners will be physicians, a drop from 71 percent in 2010. So where do all of those living with arthritis go for treatment?
Different types of arthritis can be medically managed by a number of professionals, including primary care physicians, or certain specialists, such as orthopedic surgeons and rheumatologists. When you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA) or psoriatic arthritis (PsA), they are often managed by a rheumatologist.
To prevent permanent damage of joints and loss of function, and to try and achieve remission of symptoms, it’s important to have regular checkups with a rheumatologist. If you have RA or PsA, you probably already know this.
But getting the medical care you need can be tough with the current and future shortage of physicians and rheumatologists.
One solution to the national shortage of rheumatologists is more nurse practitioners (NPs) in the rheumatology field. According to a study from 2020, NPs are quickly becoming the professional of choice for millions of Americans. These NPs can “represent rheumatology colleagues who can extend the reach of the delivery of rheumatic disease care.”
In contrast to the decline of physicians, the number of NPs entering the workforce each year has increased from 6,600 in 2003 to 18,000 in 2014. The number of primary care NPs is projected to increase by 84 percent between 2010 and 2025.
This experienced group of medical professionals has become an integral part of healthcare, especially in the field of rheumatology. But what should you expect from an NP?
According to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, an NP combines comprehensive medical experience and training with a personal touch. All NPs start as registered nurses and have some experience working in this role first.
All NPs complete a master’s or doctoral degree program in addition to their undergraduate bachelor’s degree. They also have advanced clinical, hands-on training. Usually, this training will be related to the specialty in which they work. Some NPs participate in legislative decisions, attend professional and lay forums, and conduct research.
NPs are licensed in all states and the District of Columbia. Each state has its own rules and regulations, with slightly different requirements.
NPs typically have a state license as well as a national certification. This includes periodic peer review, clinical outcome evaluations, and adherence to a code of ethics. There are also continuing education and professional development requirements that are structured and tracked by each individual state.
Some NPs maintain licenses in multiple states so they can practice medicine in a broader geographic area. This also allows for telehealth services in greater geographic regions of the country.
Whether they work autonomously or in collaboration with another healthcare professional is determined at the state level as well. You can use this map to check the practice environment for NPs in your state.
Broadly speaking, nurse practitioners can:
NPs are very credible. They often serve as mentors, educators, researchers, administrators, and role models for the next generation of healthcare professionals.
They usually demonstrate a significant degree of independence, only occasionally seeking guidance from their supervising physician colleagues when needed. This creates a confident work environment.
The use of NPs, compared with physicians, can also lower healthcare costs by treating the patient as a whole person, usually leading to fewer emergency room visits and shorter hospital stays.
A 2012 nationwide survey of the United States found that patients seen by NPs had lower RA disease activity compared with patients seen in rheumatologist-only practices.
Patients typically have higher satisfaction with NPs, because NPs usually have personable and caring personalities. An article from 2019 found patient satisfaction with NPs to be high.
When you have RA, you know the progressive and irreversible damage of the untreated disease does not slow down or wait for anything — especially not the next available appointment.
The role that an NP plays in your rheumatology group may vary from state to state and even practice to practice. But more often than not, you’re able to see the NP sooner than the rheumatologist.
Rheumatologists usually work closely with the NPs in the group to ensure quality care. They want you to get the care you need. NPs can be a great option for rheumatological care.
Is there a time when you should see a rheumatologist? Absolutely — for the first visit, initial diagnosis, a second opinion, or if your current treatments have stopped working. Also, if you’re looking for new, experimental, or off-label treatments, you should see a rheumatologist.
Typically, medical offices that include NPs are collaborative and the NP can arrange any care or treatments that you may need, including playing a role in expediting this process.
NPs are highly skilled, experienced, and trusted. This group of medical professionals has been practicing in America for several decades.
Would you like to know more about the history of the NP role? Check out this historical timeline.
No matter who you see for your appointment, you’ll get high quality care.
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