Countries that build their health care systems on the cornerstone of primary care have better health outcomes and more equitable access to care than those that do not (Starfield et al., 2005). However, primary care plays a less central role in the U.S. health care system than many health policy experts believe it should (Bodenheimer, 2006; Cronenwett and Dzau, 2010; IOM, 1996; Starfield et al., 2005; Steinwald, 2008). Geographic variations nationwide illustrate the importance of primary care. Regions of the United States with a higher ratio of generalists to specialists provide more effective care at lower cost (Baicker and Chandra, 2004), and studies have shown that those states with a greater ratio of primary care providers to the general population experience lower mortality rates for all causes of death (Shi, 1992, 1994). The positive effect is more pronounced among African Americans who have access to primary care than among whites, thus indicating that this is a promising approach to decreasing health disparities (Starfield et al., 2005). Yet primary care services have been so difficult to access in parts of the United States that one in five adults has sought nonurgent care at an emergency department (IOM, 2009).
Nurses with varying levels of education and preparation play important roles in primary care. Health promotion, education, and assessment are essential components of primary care that are also traditional strengths of the nursing profession; these services may be provided by either registered nurses (RNs) or advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs). RNs provide primary care services across the spectrum of health care settings—from acute care to home care to public health and community care. As visiting or home health nurses, RNs are positioned to identify new health problems or needs, such as medication education, prevention services, or nutrition counseling. In public health clinics, they may provide community assessments, developmental screenings, or disease surveillance. RNs in acute care settings may identify new health care problems and needs as they care for patients and their families. The range of possibilities for RNs providing primary care is significant, and their capacity for filling these roles is not always recognized.
APRNs, especially nurse practitioners (NPs), also provide primary care services across all levels of the health care system. In many situations, NPs provide care that is comparable in scope to that provided by primary care physicians. As discussed in Chapter 3, in many situations, APRNs are qualified to diagnose potential and actual health problems, develop treatment plans, in some case