What Is a Physician Extender?

Physician extenders are highly trained health care professionals

Male patient and doctor in discussion in exam room. Credit: Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

Health care systems and patients in the U.S. has been struggling with rising costs. At the same time, there has developed a shortage of primary care physicians, those who stand on the front line in patient care.

The increased necessity to manage operational costs combined with the immediate need for trained health care providers has broadened opportunities for physician extenders in today's health care system.

Most health care systems in the U.S. utilize physician extenders to help support patients and their needs. They can increase the number of patients that can be seen, expand the services that are offered and improve patient satisfaction.

What Is a Physician Extender?

You may not be familiar with the term "physician extender," but you have likely heard of nurse practitioners, physician assistants and even midwives. They may also be called mid-level providers, though this term has fallen out of favor. The term physician extender is a broad catch-all term used mostly by medical professionals to describe providers who can help you with your health care needs in addition to or in place of a medical doctor. 

There are two primary roles that health care providers seek physician extenders to fill: nurse practitioners and physician assistants.

Nurse Practitioners (NPs)

Nurse practitioners have received advanced education in health care fields that include primary care, but can also include dozens of specialties.

NPs provide a high level of quality care given their advanced training, and they have more clinical independence and more authority than other types of nurses, such as registered nurses (RN). They may practice on their own in some states, diagnosing and treating patients, or they may work alongside a physician in a hospital or other type of practice.

Due to the growing demand for healthcare providers, and an increase in the insured population of the U.S. following the implementation of health reform, nurse practitioners are seeing a surge in popularity since the passage of the ACA in 2010.

You can find a more extensive description of nurse practitioners here. There are some differences between nurses and nurse practitioners.

You'll also want to understand why some nurse practitioners object to the use of the term "physician extender" when used to describe them.

Physician Assistants (PAs)

PAs are licensed to practice medicine under the supervision of private practice physicians or hospitals. They may diagnose and treat patients, prescribe medication, and some may be surgical assistants.

Physicians assistants are relatively new to the American health care landscape, with roots in the post-Vietnam era when there was a physician shortage in the United States. The current shortage of physicians has renewed the need for PAs, which can be trained in a shorter period of time than MDs.

Their education requires a bachelor's degree, plus two to three years of additional training that results in a relevant master's degree. PAs must meet ongoing education requirements throughout their careers, which includes taking continued education classes, and are regularly retested on their medical expertise.

PAs are accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA).

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