Nationwide doctor shortage: How other medical professionals can help

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Medical care can seem a little like alphabet soup these days. You might see an M.D., a D.O., a P.A. or an N.P. In a partnership with Consumer Reports, ABC7 News Anchor Ama Daetz examined each designation down to the letter and determined that what it spells out could be better care for patients.

Need to see a doctor? Take a seat. It could be a while -- 29 days on average for a new patient to see a family-medicine physician, compared with 19 and a half days in 2014.

Part of the problem is a shortage of primary care physicians in the United States compared to other developed nations. And patients are feeling the crunch.

"Both in terms of the wait time to see a doctor, the wait time in the waiting room, and then sometimes feeling like the doctor is distracted and overworked in the office," said Lauren Friedman, Consumer Reports Health Editor.

To help fill the bench, many practices are now taking a team approach to healthcare. "We have M.D.'s, D.O.'s -- osteopathic doctors -- R.N.'s, Nurse Practitioners, P.A.'s, and we all work together as teams," said Dr. Steven Meixler.

Healthcare professionals say the end result is greater access to care.

Primary care doctors are swamped, especially during a busy flu season. But if a patient is willing to see a P.A., that's a physician assistant, or an N.P., which stands for nurse practitioner, "They can often see that person within hours and get the care that they need," said Dr. Meixler.

Even though they don't have as much training, Consumer Reports says, in many cases, it's fine to see a nurse practitioner or physician assistant for routine matters. However, there are circumstances when you might want to ask to see a physician. "...and those would be complex problems where you're not seeing a resolution, where treatment isn't working, where the diagnosis is very different or mysterious," said Friedman.

On the whole, the team-based approach is growing. More than 60 percent of physicians now work alongside advanced practice providers, and Dr. Meixler fully expects the trend to continue. "And I think it's good. And I think it's healthy. And I think it's going to help patients overall," he said.

If you are considering a practice that uses an array of healthcare providers, make sure you check with your insurance company that all of the professionals in that practice are in-network and their services are all covered.

Click here for a look at more stories by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.

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