So I was surprised when some of the most open-minded doctors I know hesitated before offering their take on the issue. Most echoed some of the concerns of the major physicians' organizations: If collaboration with a physician becomes optional, will nurse practitioners know when to ask for help? And if primary care doctors need to attend four years of medical school and three of residency, can just three years of nurse practitioner postgraduate training create competent clinicians?
But making a head-to-head comparison is tricky. Unlike the broader and basic science-heavy education of medical students, nurse practitioner students (many already having a few years of nursing experience) get practical right away and select a specialty — such as pediatrics, geriatrics, anesthesia, family, or midwifery — immediately upon beginning their training. During the corresponding years, medical students are studying subjects like embryology and biochemistry and learning the basics of how to talk to patients. Once nurse practitioners graduate, some opt for a year of additional training in a nurse practitioner residency program. (Newly minted doctors at that point will have chosen a residency specialty and will embark on at least three more years of training.) A few more years in training and nurse practitioners can earn a doctorate in clinical nursing — a DNP, which the Institute of Medicine report recommends for all advanced-practice nurses as of 2015.
Meanwhile, medical training is getting a makeover, so the difference between nurse practitioners and doctors — at least in terms of years of training — is lessening. The 100-year-old paradigm is on the chopping block in many medical schools, and some schools and hospitals are already cutting the length of med school and residency training. (Let's not even get into the outdated prerequisites for med school. Suffice it to say that I learned more about caring for patients by reading Chekhov than studying organic chemistry.) According to Ezekiel Emanuel, doctors' training could be shortened by about 30 percent. Medical-school graduates of six-year training programs (which collapse the usual eight years of college and medical school into six) don't do any worse on board exams; some schools already offer a three-year track. For internal medicine residency, Emanuel argues that three years is unnecessary; many programs have long offered two-year "short-track" options for residents eager to jump into a specialty, so why should training for primary care be any different? In my primary care residency, I spent many months on inpatient and intensive care unit rotations. This made more sense in the mid-1990s, when most primary care doctors still rounded on their own hospitalized patients. Nowadays, with hospitalists running many of the inpatient wards, many primary care physicians are becoming almost exclusively outpatient.