The past two years have revealed how much our communities rely on nurses and nurse practitioners to provide quality care. Amid a COVID-19 pandemic that has devastated clinics, hospitals and other facilities, those in the healthcare industry have rushed to the front lines, doing everything they can to ensure that we stay healthy and safe.
Unfortunately, however, many “healthcare deserts” exist in our state, where fewer and fewer healthcare professionals live and work. These areas, often rural, are medically underserved, with little or no access to healthcare via hospitals, clinics or doctors.
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In North Carolina, the growing number of healthcare deserts has reached a concerning level, with too many residents living miles away from potentially life-saving health services. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 87 of North Carolina’s 100 counties are designated as primary care deserts, impacting 6.7 million residents.
In these areas, family nurse practitioners (FNPs) have emerged as crucial providers of care. Family nurse practitioners are similar to regular nurse practitioners (NPs), with the primary difference in their training.
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NPs receive education in specific areas and usually work with a designated age group or health condition. FNPs are trained to treat whole families, covering a range of age groups from infancy to elder care, and typically serve as the primary care provider for those family members. Providing care for different groups makes FNPs essential in healthcare deserts without equitable access to care or the kinds of specialists one might find in more populated areas of North Carolina.
FNPs are an increasingly important backbone of the healthcare system in rural areas, and we need to invest in resources and programs to promote and empower those seeking FNP licensure. Providing more of these highly trained professionals will increase the quality of care in our state while driving down costs.
With nurses feeling overworked and stressed already, many cannot carve out the time to pursue an FNP degree. For many of them, accredited online family nurse practitioner programs let them study at a time convenient to them.
In addition, competency-based programs allow them to accelerate toward their degree faster once they demonstrate mastery of the curricula. We hope that all nurses interested in becoming FNPs see this as a viable path to earning an accredited degree and, ultimately, making a significant contribution to the health and well-being of their local community.
By expanding the number of FNPs in the state, we increase access to care. The solution starts with the education pipeline. We must equip students, nurses and other adults interested in becoming FNPs with accessible, cost-effective education needed to facilitate their degrees. As a result, we can help knock down barriers to care for North Carolinians in all corners of the state.
Ben Coulter, Ed.D., is Chancellor of WGU North Carolina.
Jan Jones-Schenk, DHSc, RN, FAADN, FAAN, serves as Executive Dean and Senior Vice President of WGU’s College of Health Professions.