OPINION: Protecting the health of Oklahomans

Some areas of Oklahoma, particularly rural communities, have a critical shortage of doctors. That gap has increasingly been addressed with the use of nurse practitioners. While registered nurses follow a doctor’s orders directing how a patient is to be cared for, nurse practitioners actually examine patients, make a diagnosis and prescribe treatment under the supervision of a physician.  
Although nurse practitioners have additional training and education, it is not even close to what doctors are required to complete in order to practice medicine. It’s a difference of about six years of post-secondary education for a nurse practitioner compared to 12 years for a physician.  
But here in recent years, there’s been a push to completely eliminate the required physician oversight of nurse practitioners. That’s what would happen if House Bill 1013 becomes law. Oklahomans need to sit up and take notice, because it’s a drastic change that could put their health at risk.  
Why is there such a strong push to give individuals who aren’t trained to be physicians the legal authority to act as physicians?  The bottom line is nurse practitioners without physician oversight cost less. It’s very telling that the H.B. 1013 was not assigned to the House Public Health Committee, but was sent instead to Business which acted quickly to approve it and send it on to the floor.  
There are some healthcare providers who may argue that in parts of the state, it’s difficult to find physicians willing to take the time to provide the supervision now required for nurse practitioners to make a diagnosis or prescribe medication. With telemedicine, that need can easily be met. As to those who argue some physicians do little more than rubber stamp the work of nurse practitioners they are supposed to supervise, if that’s the case, let’s address that problem. Removing the requirement for oversight is not the answer.
Nurse practitioners perform a vital function by giving many Oklahomans access to healthcare professionals they may not otherwise have. But because they do not have the same level of education as physicians, they should continue to be supervised by doctors.    
Ending required supervision of nurse practitioners by doctors won’t lower the cost of healthcare, and it could prove more expensive. With less training and education in the diagnosis of diseases, there will likely be a greater use of multiple tests to compensate — an expensive alternative for the healthcare system as a whole and for the individual patient.  And there’s another cost — a human cost when a serious condition like cancer is misdiagnosed and precious time for treating and curing the disease is lost.  
Think about it.  If a person does not have the education to be licensed as a physician in Oklahoma, why would we then give them the legal authority to practice medicine as if they were?  If we want to improve public health in Oklahoma, H.B. 1013 is the wrong prescription.

State Sen. Ervin Yen, R-Oklahoma City, is a cardiac anesthesiologist and chairs the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services. Rep. Mike Ritze, R-Broken Arrow, is a physician and surgeon and chairs the House Public Health Committee.