Australia is failing to make best use of its nurse practitioners, a new survey seems to show.
"Given the high level of educational preparation and clinical expertise manifest in nurse practitioners, underemployment in this highly skilled sector of the nursing workforce represents a waste of valuable human resources," lead author of the survey report Professor Anne Gardner said.
The study found that nearly a third of the nursing practitioners who responded to the survey were waiting for approval to prescribe medication.
More than 70 per cent said that the lack of Medicare provider numbers and lack of authority to prescribe through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme was extremely limiting to their practice.
This is despite the fact that the highly experienced nurse practitioners are authorised through legislation at state level to prescribe medication and to request diagnostic investigations within their specific specialty field and to refer patients to other health professionals.
The survey results are reported in the most recent edition of the Australian Health Review, the peer reviewed journal of the Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association.
Professor Gardner, from James Cook University's School of Nursing, Midwifery and Nutrition, said that the first Australian nurse practitioner was authorised in New South Wales in 2000 but this survey was the first census profiling the service in Australia.
''The findings reveal that we are under-utilising this highly experienced sector of the Australian health workforce," Professor Gardner said.
"We also found that fewer than three-quarters of respondents were actually employed as nurse practitioners.
''Our research makes clear that nurse practitioners are facing significant barriers to providing service in this important health provider role. The barriers occur at the service level of nurse practitioner practice and the broader policy level of regulation of practice."
Professor Gardner said that despite nursing practitioners being authorised through legislation at state level they were frequently thwarted in the application of their extended practice activities.
"This results in restrictions to the effectiveness of the role," she said.
"As an example, nurse practitioners are authorized under state law to prescribe medications, but where those medications are eligible for a PBS subsidy the patient will not receive a subsidy because regulation of the PBS falls under Commonwealth legislation, which does not currently recognise nursing practitioners as prescribers.
"Nurse practitioners are not currently eligible for a Medicare provider number which means patients cannot receive rebates for their services.
''Given the widespread workforce shortages and rising health care costs, we simply cannot afford to under-utilise this important sector of the health workforce," Professor Gardner said.
"However, we are heartened by the Commonwealth Government initiatives currently underway that should remove some of the barriers preventing nursing practitioners fully contributing to the health care of the Australian community.''