As Texas grapples with a shortage of primary care physicians across the state, patients may more frequently find their care managed by a nurse practitioner rather than a physician.

This shortage can be attributed to an ongoing lack of medical students choosing to become primary care physicians, said Cara Young, an associate professor at The University of Texas who is also the director of the university’s family nurse practitioner program.

This was made worse, she said, by a wave of retirements that came during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and the following years.

To meet the needs of primary care patients, many medical practices and clinics are choosing to staff nurse practitioners, who can provide holistic care focused on wellness of the whole person as well as coordinate specialty care. About 72% of nurse practitioners in Texas are licensed in an area of primary care, according to a 2022 report from Texas Nurse Practitioners.

About the program

Nurse practitioners are registered nurses with an advanced education and clinical training in a healthcare specialty, which can include primary care, Young said.

In particular, she said the holistic model of care nurse practitioners are trained in may make them well-suited for primary care.

“Our educational model has a holistic approach,” Young said. “We focus much of our time on education and taking care of our patients from a holistic perspective, so that we can get a sense of what's important to them and guide them in their health journey.”

Nurse practitioners also choose their specialty before beginning their training, where a traditional physician would specialize after medical school.

What to expect

Since 2019, more than 6,000 nurse practitioners have been registered in Texas. Meanwhile, 84% of counties in the state are experiencing a shortage of primary care physicians.
Young said patients might not know the difference, as there is a large overlap between the services both kinds of practitioners are able to provide.

Nurse practitioners can perform many services patients may have come to expect from physicians, according to Texas Nurse Practitioners:

• Physical examination, treatment & procedures

• Order and interpret laboratory and diagnostic studies

• Family planning service

• Healthcare during pregnancy

• Well and sick care for all ages

• Health risk evaluation

• Psychological counseling

• Coordination of health care services

• Health education