As the primary care shortage in Texas continues to worsen, the Texas A&M Health Science Center at College Station is spearheading an effort to address the problem with a new graduate program in the College of Nursing: Master of Science in Nursing, Family Nurse Practitioner, which will launch in January.
Along with much of the nation, Texas suffers from a scarcity of primary care physicians. The shortage is worse in Texas than it is in most other states, and particularly bad in rural areas. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 126 of Texas’ 254 counties have been designated Health Professional Shortage Areas, defined as areas with a doctor-patient ratio of roughly one to 3,000.
Of course, the most direct way to alleviate the primary care shortage would be to expand scope of practice for nurse practitioners. Fears about health care quality and patient safety, which opponents of reform often voice, are simply unfounded. Expanding scope of practice for nurses is not an untested or risky experiment in the practice of medicine. Nineteen other states currently allow independent practice for nurse practitioners-including neighboring New Mexico, which is actively recruiting nurses in Texas. Studies show that health outcomes for patients whose primary caregiver is a nurse practitioner are comparable to those of physicians on a number of health indicators.
Initiatives that aim to generate a new wave of nurse practitioners, such as Texas A&M’s new graduate program, are the sensible way to increase access to primary care in Texas and alleviate the physician shortage. The A&M program, which is still awaiting final approval from the Texas Board of Nursing, is a good start. What’s really needed, however, is for state lawmakers to expand scope of practice for Nurse Practitioners and allow nurses to practice to the extent of their education and training.