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Experts Weigh-In: Who should you see, a nurse practitioner or a physician?

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A new report from the Chicago Tribune shows the number of Illinois nurse practitioners has tripled in 8 years. And health centers are letting you swap a practitioner for a physician.

Health experts say the choice is a controversial one. Some believe nurse practitioners can offer similar care as doctors without having to wait months to schedule an appointment. But doctors say when they're not involved -- serious issues could be either misdiagnosed or missed completely.

Both nurse practitioners and doctors, also known as physicians, need advanced education to practice.

"Nurse practitioners are generally nurses who have completed the baccalaureate or even an associates degree and choose to go on to education while they're also going to practice -- from start to end within about six years," said Sandie Soldwisch, president of OSF St Francis College of Nursing.

Compare that to the education Dr. Purvi Parikh needed to become an allergist.

"I had to undergo four years of undergraduate college where I had to take premed classes regardless of my major, then four years of medical school and then I had to become an internal medicine physician first, which is another three years, then two years…it was a total of 13 years start to finish," said Parikh, who represents Physicians for Patient Protection.

So what does that mean for the patients? Soldwisch says nurse practitioners provide similar care and that some patients prefer it.

"They do it with a different take, that is they look at the patients and their lifestyle and their their management needs,' said Soldwisch.

Parikh acknowledges that nurse practitioners do play an important role in patient care but that people should still see physicians when available to make sure something is not missed.

"So even if with minor things or things that may seem minor in a primary care office, often the primary care physicians are the ones that pick up on that subtle stroke or the subtle heart attack," said Parikh.

Both agree doctors and nurse practitioners serve important roles within Primary are. Dr. Parikh recommends that if patients can't wait and take an appointment with a nurse practitioner -- advocate for yourself -- and ask if a doctor can spare time to examine you.

Andy Weber

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