Review update: Nurses as substitutes for doctors in primary care

Delivery of primary healthcare services by nurses instead of doctors probably leads to similar or better patient health and higher patient satisfaction

An updated review from the Cochrane Effective Practice and Organisation of Care Review Group published in the Cochrane Library investigated the impact of nurses working as substitutes for primary care doctors on: patient outcomes; processes of care; and utilisation, including volume and cost.

Delivery of primary healthcare services by nurses instead of doctors probably leads to similar or better patient health and higher patient satisfaction. Nurses probably also have longer consultations with patients. Using nurses instead of doctors makes little or no difference in the numbers of prescriptions and tests ordered. However, the impacts on the amount of information offered to patients, on the extent to which guidelines are followed and on healthcare costs are uncertain.

“This updated Cochrane Review indicates that nurses can effectively expand the capacity of the primary care workforce, ” says Miranda Laurant, the lead author of the Cochrane Review. “It doesn’t suggest that we can or should eliminate doctors from the primary care level; instead it shows that, in the cases assigned to them, trained nurses can probably provide equal or better quality of care compared to primary care doctors. This is very positive news as doing so may allow doctors to spend more time focusing on more complex cases or cases that utilize their more advanced training. Whether nurse-doctor substitution leads to substantial savings or whether nurse-doctor substitution is cost-effective remains unclear; we hope that future research will examine this.”