Patients are increasingly turning to nurse practitioners instead of physicians for a less expensive healthcare alternative.
Some experts say the trend is a solution to the staggering cost of medical treatments and the shortage of physicians, which is expected to exceed 46,000 within the next decade, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Others in the medical field warn that nurse practitioners are not an adequate replacement for physicians, who undergo more rigorous training.
While nurse practitioners must complete a master's or doctoral degree program in addition to their registered nurse certification, according to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, that training does not measure up to the seven or more years of postgraduate education and more than 10,000 hours of clinical experience that physicians are required to attain.
For that reason, 29 states prevent nurse practitioners from practicing without some level of doctor supervision.
"With a shortage of both nurses and physicians, increasing the responsibility of nurses is not the answer to the physician shortage," said Rebecca J. Patchin, a Board Member with the American Medical Association. “Nurses are critical to the health care team, but there is no substitute for education and training."
Jody Stubler, a nurse practitioner in Salt Lake City, Utah, agrees to some extent. "If I have a patient who has a condition that's more than I can deal with, I'm going to refer them to a specialist," she said.
But because Stubler is trained to provide medical care like treating colds, performing small X-rays and writing prescriptions, she opened her own clinic in hopes of providing people with the basic healthcare they need at a lower cost.
Stubler's Hope Family Medical Center has no physician oversight, which is legal in Utah.
Stubler does consult with Dr. Seth Wallace, who said he sees the benefits of a clinic, run by a nurse practitioner, where those who don't have insurance don't have to worry about exorbitant costs.
"It's just knowing your limits," Wallace said. "And really a good practitioner, regardless of whether they're a physician or a nurse practitioner, they know their limits."