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How family nurse practitioners can help ease the primary care physician shortage

Apr 19, 2023
5 min Read
Creighton University Staff
Nurse and patient discussing a plan

Have you ever struggled to find a local doctor who is accepting new patients and has manageable wait times for appointments? If so, you’ve likely already felt the effects of the primary care provider (PCP) shortage that is widespread across the United States.

The U.S. faces a projected shortage of between 17,800 and 48,000 primary care physicians by 2034, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). In order to help ease this burden, many healthcare facilities are turning to family nurse practitioners (FNPs).

To learn more about this promising solution, we enlisted the expert insight of Trina K. Walker, DNP, APRN, FNP-C an assistant professor in Creighton University’s Family Nurse Practitioner graduate program.

Facts about the primary care physician shortage in the United States

As of 2021, nearly 95 million Americans live in a health professional shortage area (HPSA) and suffer from insufficient access to primary care, mental health and dental providers. About 65 percent of the HPSA-designated counties are “non-metro,” which means that people living in rural areas are more affected than suburbanites and urban dwellers.

Some of the main causes for the primary care shortage include:

  • Fewer physicians are choosing primary care areas like internal medicine, pediatrics and family medicine, in part due to the growing number of specialties and sub-specialties.
  • The U.S. population is rapidly aging and requires more care as residents grow older.
  • Physicians are also growing older and retiring from the profession – according to the AAMC, two of every five physicians in the U.S. will be 65 or older in the next decade.

The ongoing PCP shortage has detrimental effects on patients and providers alike. When people have to wait several days or weeks – or travel long distances – to be seen, they are less likely to seek help at all. This leads to fewer preventive care visits for things like annual checkups, cancer screenings and immunizations.

“When you can’t catch things right away, cases become much more complex and time-consuming,” Dr. Walker says. In workplaces that are already understaffed, this can exacerbate feelings of burnout and exhaustion among those providing care.

Understanding the primary care provider role

According to, a primary care provider is defined as:

“A physician (M.D. – Medical Doctor or D.O. – Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine), nurse practitioner, clinical nurse specialist or physician assistant, as allowed under state law, who provides, coordinates or helps a patient access a range of health care services.”

No matter what education path you take to become a PCP, the goal is to become an expert generalist who can confidently and compassionately work across the lifespan.

“I enjoy the broad knowledge base required for primary care.” Dr. Walker shares. “We have the opportunity to care for entire families – kids, grandchildren, spouses, etc. I get to know them personally and become invested in their lives and well-being.”

She goes on to explain that family nurse practitioners are uniquely well-suited to provide primary care for a number of reasons. Their years of extensive bedside experience are reinforced with comprehensive clinical training that empowers FNPs to treat the whole person, not just the disease or illness.

“I obtained my DNP and became a family nurse practitioner because I wanted to be that homebase for my patients,” Dr. Walker states. “I have so much more insight into their health and can often tell when things are ‘off’ just based on how familiar I am with them.”

How family nurse practitioners can ease the primary care shortage

There is an abundance of research that shows nurse practitioners are cost-effective and provide consistently high-quality care. FNPs are also critical to the health and wellbeing of rural communities and underserved populations, particularly people of color, individuals with disabilities, refugees, and patients who are uninsured or underinsured.

According to the American Association of Nurse Practitioners:

•    There are more than 355,000 nurse practitioners (NPs) licensed in the U.S.
•    88% of NPs are certified in an area of primary care, and 70% of all NPs deliver primary care.
•    96% of NPs prescribe medications, and those in full-time practice write an average of 21 prescriptions per day.
•    NPs hold prescriptive privileges, including for controlled substances, in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

Within rural and underserved communities, family nurse practitioners are already providing a larger share of primary care to patients. One 2018 study estimates that more than 25 percent of rural providers are NPs and nearly one in three primary care providers nationwide will be an NP by 2025.

Make an impact as a family nurse practitioner

It’s clear that family nurse practitioners play an important part in the lives of the people they care for – and the healthcare system as a whole. If you’re an experienced bedside nurse who is ready to expand your influence and build long-lasting relationships with patients, becoming an FNP might be the most logical next step.

And there’s no better time to pursue this career path. The U.S. News and World Report ranked the nurse practitioner role number one on its 2022 Best Health Care Jobs list. Additionally, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects NP jobs to grow 46 percent by 2031 – that’s more than five times faster than the national average for all occupations.

If you’ve already earned a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), your next step is to decide between a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctorate of Nurse Practice (DNP). Both education options can put you on the path to becoming a certified family nurse practitioner (FNP-C).

The online Doctor of Nursing Practice at Creighton University is recognized for developing ethical, compassionate and highly skilled clinicians. In fact, 100% of our FNP students passed their board certification exams in 2021 and 2022. Our graduates are dedicated to advancing quality of care and improving healthcare systems from the inside out.

Learn more about the two entry points into our highly ranked and fully accredited DNP program:

•    BSN to DNP (for nurses who hold a BSN)
•    Post-graduate to DNP (for advanced practice nurses)

For more information about this degree, read “What to Expect from a DNP Nursing Education.”

Still have questions? Schedule a time to speak with an admissions counselor about the DNP program.


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