Physician Extender Health Care Professionals

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Health care systems and patients in the U.S. have been struggling with rising costs. At the same time, there is a shortage of primary care physicians—those who stand on the front line in patient care—and the shortage has been projected to continue.

The increased necessity to manage operational costs combined with the immediate need for trained health care providers has broadened opportunities for physician extenders in today's health care system. Most health care systems in the U.S. utilize physician extenders to help support patients and their needs. They can increase the number of patients that can be seen, expand the services that are offered and improve patient satisfaction.

What Is a Physician Extender?

You may not be familiar with the term "physician extender," but you have likely heard of nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and even midwives. These professionals may also be called mid-level providers, though this term has fallen out of favor. The term physician extender is a broad catch-all term used mostly by medical professionals to describe providers who can help you with your health care needs in addition to or in place of a medical doctor

There are two primary roles that health care providers seek physician extenders to fill: nurse practitioners and physician assistants.

Nurse Practitioners (NPs)

Nurse practitioners (NPs) have received advanced education in health care fields that include primary care but can also include dozens of medical specialties.

NPs provide a high-level of quality care given their advanced training, and they have more clinical independence and more authority than other types of nurses, such as registered nurses (RNs). They may practice on their own in some states, diagnosing and treating patients, or they may work alongside a physician in a hospital or other type of practice.

Due to the growing demand for primary care providers, rising health care costs, and a high level of patient satisfaction for the care they provide, nurse practitioners are seeing a surge in popularity.

You can find a more extensive description of nurse practitioners here, while learning the differences between nurses and nurse practitioners.

You'll also want to understand why some nurse practitioners object to the use of the term "physician extender" when used to describe them.

Physician Assistants (PAs)

Physician assistants (PAs) are licensed to practice medicine under the supervision of private practice physicians or hospitals. They may diagnose and treat patients, prescribe medication, and some may be surgical assistants.

PAs are relatively new to the American health care landscape, with roots in the post-Vietnam era when there was a physician shortage in the United States. The current shortage of physicians has renewed the need for PAs, which can be trained in a shorter period of time than medical doctors and can practice in every medical setting and specialty. The demand is so high that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the profession will increase by 31% from 2018 to 2028.

Their education requires a bachelor's degree, plus additional training that results in a master's-level degree requiring clinical rotations and direct patient care. PAs must meet ongoing education requirements throughout their careers, which includes taking continued education classes and regular exams to test their medical expertise.

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Article Sources
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  1. Association of American Medical Colleges. New findings confirm predictions on physician shortage. April 23, 2019.

  2. American Association of Nurse Practitioners. What's a nurse practitioner (NP)?

  3. American Association of Nurse Practitioners. Use of terms such as mid-level provider and physician extender. Updated 2015.

  4. Yale School of Medicine. History of the profession. Updated September 24, 2019.

  5. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Physician assistants. Updated April 10, 2020.

  6. American Academy of PAs. What is a PA?