A recent report found that 13% of Americans live in a county with a shortage of primary care physicians and the problem is more common in rural areas. It’s expected to get worse in the coming decades, especially since only one in six medical school graduates picked a primary care residency program last year.
Nurse practitioners and physician assistants have recently taken on a larger role in primary care. Health experts say those roles will help fill primary care gaps in the coming years with physician shortages expected.
The report also found 51% of the office visits for employer-sponsored insurance were for primary care physicians in 2012. Four years later, that percentage dropped to 43%. Overall, office visits to nurse practitioners and physician assistants skyrocketed 129% between 2012 and 2016. Office visits to specialists and other non-physician providers remained similar between 2012 and 2016.
“Many factors likely influenced the trends described in this brief, including state policies, variation in insurance benefit design and changes in access to different types of providers,” according to the report.
The report didn’t explore how age or demographics may influence the trend. Patients, especially younger ones, often want convenience and don’t feel as connected to a specific primary physician. Those patients are more likely to get care beyond a usual doctor’s office visit.
Care through nurse practitioners and physician assistants might be thought of as a lower-cost solution to primary care physicians, but the report found similar costs for office visits. PCP office visit costs were $106 in 2016 and $103 for nurse practitioners and physician assistants. So, while those visits may offer greater access to care and more convenience, they might not provide lower-cost care.
Shopping for health insurance has become more complicated over the years, with narrow networks and access to care being a high priority.
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