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Study: Nurse Practitioners Could Fill Growing Needs in Rural Care

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Friday, August 14, 2009   

St. Paul, MN - As elected leaders consider changes to the country's health care system, one researcher suggests expanding the role nurses and nurse practioners play in primary health care. The study finds people seeking primary care outside of major Minnesota cities are seeing a drop in the already-low number of doctors and other primary care providers.

Melissa Florell, a researcher for the <Center for Rural Affairs, says 20 percent of people live in rural areas where only nine percent of primary care providers practice. That ratio causes rural medicine to be a less-appealing career choice for doctors and other health professionals, and is an example of one of the projects health care reform needs to tackle, she says.

"When you combine the overhead costs of serving in a rural area along with the demands on their time from being one of a few, or the only health care provider in that area, it's too much for them to handle. There's no work-life balance."

The lack of accessible and affordable rural health care is troubling, says Florell, given the higher incidence of certain chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease, in rural areas.

"The fewer primary care providers available to patients, the more fragmented their care. That leads to some overlapping of testing, which increases cost. It also reduces the quality of care that patients are receiving because no one is looking at their whole health history."

Any reform of health care could include incentives, adds Florell, such as tuition reimbursements for recruiting and retaining medical professionals in sparsely populated areas. Reform could also include guidelines to help states allow nurse practioners to move into the role of primary care provider, she says. Advocates of the concept believe allowing nurses and nurse practitioners more freedom to prescribe medicines and other treatments could expand accessibility of care in rural Minnesota. Minnesota typically ranks high for its overall quality of health care, but rural areas don't share those overall rankings.

The study is posted online at www.cfra.org.


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