Physician Assistants and Nurse Practitioners as Primary Care Providers: What You Need to Know


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South Shore Health

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The primary care landscape has changed significantly in the United States over the past several years.

Factors like an aging population with increasingly complex medical needs have forced primary care practices to adapt to help meet the needs of their patients.

The COVID-19 pandemic drastically accelerated the pace of those changes.

The problem is simple: more and more patients need care, but the number of available doctors hasn’t kept pace.

As a result, many primary care practices, including South Shore Medical Center, have tapped into a well-known, experienced resource to help meet increased demand: advanced practice clinicians.

VIDEO: David Halle, MD on Advanced Practice Clinicians' growing role at South Shore Medical Center

What is an advanced practice clinician?

Advanced practice clinician (APC) is an umbrella term used to describe healthcare personnel who will certainly be familiar to you: nurse practitioners (NPs) and physician assistants (PAs).

Just as MDs and DOs are grouped together broadly as “physicians,” NPs and PAs (along with a few other personnel) are grouped together as APCs.

APCs have long been an integral part of the primary care team, working alongside physicians to provide primary, specialty, and long-term care for patients.

In the past, patients would see an APC after already establishing a relationship with a primary care physician.

For example, your primary care provider would be an MD or DO, and that provider would have NPs or PAs on their care team who you may see for a sick visit or follow-up visit.

Nurse practitioners and physician assistants as primary care providers

In recent years, many states have enacted legislation that expands the role of NPs or PAs in a primary care setting – namely allowing some NPs and PAs to have their own patient panels as primary care providers.

This leads to what we call the “APC as PCP” relationship: patients see an NP or PA for their primary care needs instead of a physician.

By taking on patients of their own, NPs and PAs have been able to ease some of the strain on the primary care system, leading to a better experience for all patients.

What level of care can an APC provide for a patient?

While some patients may be concerned about not seeing a physician for their primary care, it’s important to know that APCs are highly qualified and offer the same level of care as a physician in a primary care setting.

If you’re used to seeing a physician for primary care, your patient experience won’t change much if you switch to an NP or PA as your primary care provider.

APCs can:

  • Diagnose and treat conditions and illnesses
  • Order, perform, and interpret diagnostic tests, such as laboratory and medical imaging tests
  • Prescribe medications and other treatments
  • Educate and advise patients on their health conditions and prevention of illness
  • Manage and coordinate care with an interdisciplinary team of clinicians
  • Collaborate with other clinicians on additional treatment, surgery, referral, and more

Additionally, APCs focus on promoting health and wellness while guiding patients to make the best healthcare decisions based on their lifestyle.

Do APCs have as much training as physicians?

Like physicians, there are strict education and training requirements for APCs. However, there are some differences between the levels of education and training:

  • Physicians typically complete a bachelor’s degree, medical school, and a residency
  • APCs typically complete a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in a focused PA or NP program.

Similar to physicians, APCs require advanced training and education beyond their initial medical training.

Our APCs are board-certified, licensed healthcare professionals, which signifies the highest level of accreditation within their field.

They all hold a master’s or a doctorate degree with advanced nursing education and training.

Like physicians, APCs must complete continuing education requirements throughout their careers, demonstrating their desire to practice at the top of their profession and commitment to delivering high-quality care to their patients.

What is the relationship between physicians and APCs?

At South Shore Medical Center, our APCs collaborate with physicians in a team-based approach.

This approach helps you get the patient-centered care you need without interruption.

APCs may seek a physician’s input if necessary, but most APCs are able to practice independently – including caring for complex patients and, in some cases, performing surgery.

Learn more about Primary Care at South Shore Health.