Help pack a million meals for struggling seniors on 9-11. Volunteer today


AARP Staying Sharp: Keep Your Brain Healthy


The tablet with free 24/7 customer support. Learn More


Military and Veterans Discount



AARP Games - Play Now!


Learn From the Experts

Sign up now for an upcoming webinar or find materials from a past session.


Planning for Long-Term Care for Dummies

Get expert advice on planning for your own or a relative’s future care needs.

Learning centers

Get smart strategies for managing health conditions.



Heart Disease


Most Popular


The Doctor Can't See You Now – But the Nurse Can

Why you may well want to take the appointment

The field of advanced practice nursing arose in the 1960s —a time when, like today, health care faced enormous challenges. In 1965, Medicare and Medicaid expanded coverage to low-income women, children, seniors and people with disabilities, dramatically increasing demand. In addition, rapid advances in medicine meant more doctors were going into specialties, creating the shortage of primary care physicians that continues today.

 Randy Faris/Corbis

In many underserved rural and poor urban areas, nurse practitioners represent the only health care providers available.

At the time, advanced practice nursing had plenty of critics. Physician groups worried that the quality of medical care would suffer, since nurses receive less training than doctors. Some professional nursing groups voiced concerns that nursing's unique role would be diluted.

Many of those concerns have been allayed. Since the early 1970s, dozens of studies have shown that the quality of primary care from nurse practitioners is equal to that of medical doctors. In a 2002 report in the British Medical Journal that reviewed 34 studies, researchers found that patients fare equally well whether they were seen by a nurse practitioner or a primary care physician. Indeed, patients were typically more satisfied with care from nurse practitioners, perhaps in part because they spent more time with patients.

One proving ground has been the Veterans Administration, which has long made extensive use of nurse practitioners. Findings reported in 2009 showed that the V.A.'s Home Based Primary Care Program, run entirely by advanced practice nurses, reduced hospital stays from 14.8 days to 5.6 days and kept many patients out of nursing homes by helping them live independently.

Some of the crucial roles nurse practitioners fill are less easy to measure but just as important, advocates say. One is providing information. "I can't tell you how often patients see the doctor and then sit down with the nurse practitioner and say, ‘Would you please explain what's going on,' " says Salmon. In their role as teachers, nurses tend to stress preventive care, encouraging patients to follow healthier lifestyles.

Nurses also provide continuity of care in an increasingly fragmented medical system. "Older patients with chronic illnesses may see a doctor once every three months," says Salmon. "In between, it's often the nurse practitioner who follows-up, who makes sure patients comply with treatment, who watches for adverse reactions or new problems."

The culture of nursing has traditionally addressed not only the physical needs but also psychological and even spiritual needs of patients. "They see the larger context," says Carol Hall Ellenbecker, PhD, RN, a professor at the College of Nursing & Health Sciences at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. "That's especially important when you're talking about older patients with chronic illnesses."

Filling the gap

In many underserved rural and poor urban areas, nurse practitioners represent the only health care providers available. When the sole physician in Mount Morris, Pennsylvania, retired in 1990, people in this rural and relatively poor community on the border of West Virginia had to travel long distances to get medical care — until nurse practitioner Mona Counts, PhD., RN, , who is now a professor of nursing at Pennsylvania State University, started the Primary Care Center of Mt. Morris.

One of her first patients was Jeanne Roush-Russell, 73. Fifteen years ago, when Roush-Russell suddenly collapsed at work, Counts was there in minutes. Bedridden after a string of surgeries, Roush-Russell receives regular home visits from Mt. Morris's nurse practitioners. "I wouldn't be able to stay at home if it weren't for them."

Topic Alerts

You can get weekly email alerts on the topics below. Just click “Follow.”

Manage Alerts


Please wait...

progress bar, please wait

Tell Us WhatYou Think

Please leave your comment below.


Discounts & Benefits

From companies that meet the high standards of service and quality set by AARP.

Walgreens 1 discount membership aarp

Members can earn 50 points per $1 spent on select health & wellness products at Walgreens.

member benefit aarp hear usa

Members save 15% on easy listening devices and more at the HearUSA Hearing Shop.

Eye Med 4 Membership Benefit AARP Discount

Members save up to 60% on eye exams and 30% on glasses at Target Optical.

Membership Benefits Discounts Email Genius

Brain boost? Get AARP email for access to memory exercises & more that help you focus.

Rewards for Good

Your Points Balance:

Learn More

Earn points for completing free online activities designed to enrich your life.

Find more ways to earn points

Redeem your points to save on merchandise, travel, and more.

Find more ways to redeem points