Doctors aren't alone in providing primary care to patients. Increasingly, nurse practitioners and physician assistants have been sharing the workload.
Nurse practitioners are professionals licensed by the states they practice in. They can order tests, diagnose diseases and treat patients. Coming from registered nursing backgrounds, they "stress both care and cure," according to the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners.
Nurse practitioners have advanced education and clinical training beyond registered nursing preparation. Most have master's degrees; many have doctorates. According to the AANP, there are about 120,000 practicing nurse practitioners.
Physician assistants also are licensed health care providers who perform duties similar to nurse practitioners, including diagnosing, treating patients, writing prescriptions, even assisting in surgery. They typically do not have the same level of education as a nurse practitioner. Most training programs last two years, and generally require two years of college and some health care experience for admission. After completion of the program, PAs are required to pass a national certification exam.
Registered nurses administer treatments and medications, educate patients and provide advice and support. Registered nurses enter the field through associate or bachelor degree programs, or through diploma programs administered by hospitals.
Sources: The U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, www.bls.gov; The American Academy of Nurse Practitioners, www.aanp.org; the American Academy of Physician Assistants, http://www.aapa.org/.