The chances are good that if you have visited a doctor's office or healthcare clinic, you may not have seen a doctor. Of all visits to community healthcare centers, 31 percent were with Nurse Practitioners (NPs) or Physician Assistants (PAs). But, what exactly does a Nurse Practitioner do, and what is the difference between an NP and an actual doctor? 

What Is a Nurse Practitioner? 

A Nurse Practitioner is a licensed professional that can practice independently or work in tandem with a treatment team, including a board-licensed physician. Part of the NP's job is to assess, much like a registered nurse; however, Nurse Practitioners also diagnose, prescribe medication and take charge of their patient's treatment and care. The two types of Nurse Practitioners are Family Nurse Practitioners and Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioners, which each have distinct responsibilities and mandates. 

Reasons to See a Nurse Practitioner 

It is often much easier to get in and see a Nurse Practitioner than it is to make an appointment with a physician. These providers are often the practitioners that you are met with when seeking medical attention, particularly in walk-in healthcare settings. You will find NPs widely, including in gerontology, oncology, pediatrics, women's health practices, psychiatric facilities and acute care facilities. 

Some reasons to opt for an NP over a physician include: 

  • Easier to find
  • More flexible scheduling
  • Often, patient can be seen sooner
  • Ability to prescribe medications, make referrals, and run diagnostic tests
  • Covered by insurance
  • More holistic approach to your health
  • Works in collaboration with other treatment professionals
  • Typically spends more time with the patient

While service provision and patient satisfaction will vary from provider to provider, you should consult with online resources to find highly rated and positively reviewed NPs when seeking medical intervention. 

What Does a Nurse Practitioner Do? 

Family Nurse Practitioners (FNPs) serve a role similar to that of a primary care physician by evaluating, diagnosing and treating common physical and mental conditions; a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMH-NP) assesses and treats common as well as less common psychiatric issues. 

Some of the things that a Nurse Practitioner can do for you include: 

  • Assess and diagnose general physical and mental health issues 
  • Create treatment plans
  • Prescribe medications 
  • Order labs and tests 

How Is a Nurse Practitioner Certified? 

A Nurse Practitioner has a graduate degree in nursing and has passed the Nurse Practitioner Certification exam. Additional certifications and requirements for the provider's preferred areas of expertise vary based on state. It is widely recommended that if you decide to see an NP, make certain that they are nationally certified practitioners. 

Referral and Research 

Usually, a patient does not need a special referral to meet with a Nurse Practitioner, as these individuals widely fulfill patient needs at clinics, hospitals, agencies and other healthcare settings. Take advantage of online resources to check out your practitioner and to help you find a provider in under-served regions. Consider things like hours and access as well as whether the NP allows for phone calls or home visits. Do a bit of research to find an NP that is state-certified, that you are comfortable with and with whom you can openly communicate. Ask around and check out online health care databases such as CareDash to find qualified local NPs with favorable patient reviews. 

Questions You Should Ask Your Nurse Practitioner During Your Visit 

A Nurse Practitioner will typically take more time with patients than doctors do, and they will cover areas such as disease prevention and lifestyle changes. Make the most of your time with your NP by asking relevant questions that about your health that can help aid you during recovery. Bring a list of questions to your initial appointment to make sure all of your concerns are addressed. Take time to ask your NP questions such as: 

  • How can this condition impact other areas of my health?
  • Are there any appropriate lifestyle changes that I should consider making?
  • Could diet play a part in my condition?
  • What can be done to prevent recurrences or bouts? Is there anything that I can do?
  • Should I be seen by a physician? What about a specialist?
  • Are there alternative treatment approaches that could impact my condition or alleviate symptoms? What are those options?
  • When can I expect to resume regular activity or feel better? What is the prognosis?
  • What are the expected side-effects of any medications or treatment regimens prescribed?
  • Can I call the Nurse Practitioner with further questions or concerns after discharge?

Many NPs will also take the time to address questions and concerns of your family, caregiver or other individuals that are accompanying you on the visit. Ask for clarification when necessary and don't be afraid to ask questions — it is your health, after all. 

Nurse Practitioners meet an unmet demand and need in communities, providing qualified, licensed care to patients. Their hands-on methods and holistic attitude toward treatment can make many individuals seeking medical attention feel heard and engaged, giving the patient what they need to make informed decisions and feel a part of their treatment plan. The next time you schedule a visit with a provider, assess the techniques and approach of your NP. You will find that these professionals have a lot to offer their patients and that your symptoms are treated efficiently and collaboratively.