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Arkansas State University

Healthcare Needs Family Nurse Practitioners to Combat Health Inequity

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines ‘health inequity’ as “systematic differences in the health status of different population groups.” In more practical terms, health inequity is the avoidable differences in the health between different populations — environmental factors that negatively affect a person’s health when they are otherwise preventable.

Healthcare professionals will encounter many examples of health inequity when practicing. Therefore, it is critical to identify these issues, understand their influence on patient healthcare and adjust accordingly.

The Impacts of Health Inequities

Income, living conditions and social expectations are just a few factors that affect patient health, and providers should be able to manage the resulting health effects. But, as Medical News Today notes, these inequities are the consequences of “human-made systems and structures that privilege certain groups and underserve or actively oppress others.”

The same source explains that these health inequities stem from race, sex, class, culture, sexuality or physical capabilities. These prejudices and biases lead to discrimination and, eventually, neglect for the underserved groups.

To further compound the problems caused by health inequities, the number of physicians is dropping. A June 2021 report from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) projects a shortage in doctors in both primary care and specialties by 2034. Such a dearth would only exacerbate existing inequities along the same social and economic lines.

In many communities, factors like “poverty, unsafe living conditions, food insecurity, oppression and abuse” create chronic stress. According to the practice journal Nursing for Women’s Health (NWH), these issues take a toll on a person’s body over time, resulting in long-term damage to functioning body systems. Health inequities can lead to a variety of dire outcomes, including higher rates of poor mental health, difficulty finding appropriate treatment, lower life expectancy and an increase in preventable deaths.

The Nurse Practitioner’s Role

These conditions can significantly vary from place to place or person to person and have an immense effect on patient health. Identifying them is difficult: These factors do not readily show up in a patient’s medical chart, which means they can be easily overlooked as a root cause of potential health issues. Recognizing and diagnosing them effectively requires a thorough assessment of a person’s living conditions and strong knowledge of the patient’s background.

Thanks to their holistic approach, primary care nurse practitioners (NPs) are often uniquely situated to help address these issues in a patient’s care and treatment plan. NPs who hold advanced degrees, such as a Master of Science in Nursing – Family Nurse Practitioner online program, are one of the best tools to combat health inequities.

NPs have proven to be effective primary care providers in research and long-term studies and can alleviate the strain put on many primary care and specialty physicians. Here are some other ways NPs can help lessen a strained healthcare system:

Expand access to healthcare

Primary care NPs help improve access to healthcare, particularly among underserved populations, in multiple ways. According to a 2021 article from the National Nurse-Led Consortium (NNLC), primary care NPs are more likely to “practice in rural areas.” They are significantly more likely to care for “vulnerable populations.” Put more simply, they serve many people in many places that primary care facilities traditionally overlook.

Furthermore, the number of NPs entering the U.S. workforce vastly outpaces that of primary care and specialty physicians, according to the NNLC. Nearly 90% of the approximately 290,000 existing NPs are certified in primary care, and about 30,000 new NPs have entered the workforce annually. Primary care NPs are also a more cost-effective way to combat provider shortages in both rural and urban regions.

Reduce health issue

Increased independence for primary care NPs has also resulted in a reduction in health issues and, thus, a reduction in healthcare costs on a system-wide basis. A 2017 study in the Journal of National Health Economics found that NP independence “increases the frequency of routine checkups, improves care quality, and decreases emergency room use by patients with ambulatory care sensitive conditions.” One of the roots of these improvements was decreased administrative costs for physicians, according to the authors of the study.

Provide high-quality care

The nature of nurse practitioner’s responsibilities also uniquely positions them to offer a high-quality level of care. As the NNLC explains, nursing school and NP graduate-level programs emphasize “patient-centered, whole-person care that accounts for the effects of social determinants of health.”

This kind of care provided regularly often creates a healthcare relationship more responsive to a patient’s daily life. Additionally, NPs have experience both at the patient’s bedside and in exam rooms, giving them a full-spectrum view of treatment that allows them to see a broader, more holistic context for each patient.

Learn more about Arkansas State University’s online Master of Science in Nursing – Family Nurse Practitioner program.

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