Which White Coat Are You?

A few weeks ago, while scheduling an appointment with my primary care physician, I was asked if I would mind seeing the Nurse Practitioner because the doctor was going to be out of town on the day of my appointment.  My first response was, “No, I want to see the doctor.”  The receptionist proceeded to explain that it was my choice, but the Nurse Practitioner can do much of what doctors can do.  I took the appointment with the Nurse Practitioner, and immediately went online to find out who’s who in doctors’ offices these days.  Here’s what I learned.

Let’s start from the time you get to your doctor’s office —  who you may come in contact with – what their positions are — and their role in your visit.

  • The physician (MD) is the person in charge, with the most training and the longest white coat.  Physicians have 3 to 7 years of training after med school.
  • Physician Assistant can diagnose and prescribe lab tests, treatment and medication.  They have a master’s degree, plus 2,000 hours of patient training.  A PA’s white coat is a little shorter than a physician’s.
  • Nurse Practitioner is an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) who has completed advanced coursework and clinical education beyond what is required of a generalist registered nurse (RN) role. NPs can do much of what doctors do, including diagnosing and prescribing medications. They have 500-700 hours of direct patient care during nursing school.
  • Medical Student is a doctor in training who wears a hip-length white coat.  He or she can take medical history, however, any prescribing of medications or diagnostic testing needs approval from a supervising physician.
  • Registered Nurse is certified and licensed by the state.  RNs administer medicines, provide care and otherwise manage patient care.
  • Technician is in charge of performing routine tests, such as drawing blood and running EKGs.  They are certified by the state and many have an associate’s degree in clinical laboratory science.

When scheduling your next doctor’s appointment, be thorough about what your visit will entail.  This will help the scheduler in putting you with the right associate for your visit.

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