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December 12, 2022

Family Nurse Practitioners are One Solution to Healthcare Deserts

Photo of nurse in a field

Imagine having to drive 45 minutes or more to see a doctor. That’s the situation many North Carolinians face as more and more hospitals, clinics and healthcare practices in rural counties shut down. According to data from 2019, Gates County was one of two counties in North Carolina with no physicians of any kind. That means no doctors practicing primary care, OBGYN, pediatrics, or urgent care medicine in the county.

According to GoodRX, “healthcare deserts” are defined as areas across the United States where people lack adequate access to six key healthcare services: pharmacies, primary care providers, hospitals, hospital beds, trauma centers, and low-cost health centers. Although urban healthcare deserts exist, they are primarily found in rural areas.

In North Carolina, the growing number of healthcare deserts has reached a concerning level, with too many residents living miles away from potentially lifesaving health services. Using data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, SideCar Health identified 87 of North Carolina’s 100 counties as “primary healthcare deserts.” Those counties have a combined population of 6.7 million residents, or 64% of North Carolina’s population.

It is in these healthcare deserts where family nurse practitioners (FNPs) have emerged as crucial purveyors of care. Family nurse practitioners are similar to regular nurse practitioners (NPs) with the primary difference being in their training. NPs receive training 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.

The ability to provide care for different groups makes FNPs essential in rural areas and isolated healthcare deserts without equitable access to care or to the kinds of specialists found in the more populated areas of North Carolina.

FNPs are an increasingly important backbone of the healthcare system in rural areas, which is why 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. Job-recruitment website Indeed.com currently lists 459 job openings for FNPs across North Carolina, although the actual number of job openings is no doubt higher.

WGU’s Leavitt School of Health has introduced a new Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP) program seeking to provide this necessary education. Our hope is that all those interested in becoming FNPs see this as a viable path to earning an accredited education and, ultimately, making a significant contribution to the health and well-being of the community.

“During the height of COVID, over 19 critical access hospitals closed nationwide, leaving rural communities desperate to access primary care and mental health services,” said Janelle Sokolowich, PhD., MSN/Ed, RN, who serves as Academic Vice President and Dean of WGU’s Leavitt School of Health. “Our nurse practitioner programs were developed to help solve this gap right now. By educating nurses where they live, they are empowered to become the primary care/mental health providers in their community.” She added, “The need is great and it is our responsibility as leaders in higher education to answer this call to action.”

By expanding the number of FNPs in the state, we expand access to care. The solution starts with the education pipeline. We must equip students, nurses, and other adults who are interested in becoming FNPs with the 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.

For more information about becoming a family nurse practitioner, visit this web page.

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