Recent findings from the Health Care Cost Institute reveal what many patients have already learned - when you visit the doctor, you won’t always be seen by an actual physician. Increasingly, patients who visit their primary care doctor, particularly for last minute care, will be seen by a nurse practitioner (NP) or a physician’s assistant (PA). In fact, the study revealed that between 2012 and 2016, the number of patients who received their primary care from an NP or PA instead of their regular doctor had increased by 129%. In 2012, 51% of patients were seen by a doctor and in 2016 that percentage dropped to just 43%. Interestingly, patient visits to primary care offices as opposed to specialists have simultaneously decreased by 18%.
While some of this is attributed to an aging population, there’s also an increasing shortage of physicians, as many new practitioners are opting to go into specialties as opposed to general medical practice.
The number of NPs and PAs in the U.S. has increased due to this demand. NPs and PAs can provide an extra set of skilled hands in a busy work environment to help evaluate every day issues, allowing doctors to focus on that which is more clinically complex. United Health Group recently learned that 13% of Americans are affected by physician shortages, with little or no direct access to primary care providers. This occurs primarily in rural areas, with the biggest impact in the Midwest and the Northwest parts of the country.
The study also notes that although the office visits are conducted by a less skilled provider, out-of-pocket costs to patients remains the same, whether they see a physician or a member of his or her team. Average out of pocket costs in 2016 for a primary care office visit was $106 to see a physician, versus $103 to see an NP or a PA in the same office.