Rx for the doctor gap

DeWayne Bartels

When Melissa Birk-Dye became an RN in 2001, she found the work satisfying and rewarding.

But, it was not rewarding enough for the ‘97 Richwoods High School graduate.

Not long into her nursing career, Birk-Dye went back to school for three-and-a-half years to earn a master’s degree and become an advanced practice nurse in December 2006.

The North Peorian has now found satisfaction in a rapidly growing area of medical practice important in an era when a doctor shortage is predicted.

Holistic approach

This week is National APN Week. Birk-Dye sat down to speak about this career, which is becoming an increasing part of the health care industry.

She practices at the OSF Medical Group — Gastroenterology.

“An RN is a nurse ... doing nursing jobs such as evaluating needs,” Birk-Dye said. “An APN can form medical diagnoses. We can do tests. Then we can also treat for those diagnoses.”

Birk-Dye is a clinical nurse specialist, specializing in adult health. Birk-Dye said she manages patient care, providing direct care, consultation, research and education. 

Birk-Dye said this role is satisfying because of the level of interaction and decision-making she has with patients.

“I have more autonomy to care for my patients,” she said. “I can look at a patient in a more holistic way.”

Birk-Dye said because she has more responsibility in patient care it leads her to a greater depth of understanding of a patient’s needs.

“I get to spend more time with the patient,” she said. “I work with the doctor, which leads to more comprehensive care for the patient.”

Birk-Dye said APNs are becoming a more important aspect of health care. OSF Saint Francis Medical Group has doubled the number of APNs that it employs in the last 3 years, and many of the patients that come to OSF will have APNs as part of their health care team.

“We don’t have enough doctors, especially in primary care (family physicians),” Birk-Dye said. “People are going to see more APNs in the hospital setting and doctor’s offices. We all keep a pretty full schedule. There’s plenty of patients to be seen everywhere.”

In a 2006 report, the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration projected a shortfall of 55,100 physicians by 2020. Dr. Richard Cooper, former dean of the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, recognized as an expert on physician-workforce projections, said he expects a shortage of 50,000 physicians by 2010, which could expand to 200,000 by 2020.

Continuity counts

Birk-Dye said one important thing APNs can provide the patient is continuity.

“A doctor’s time with a patient is limited. An APN can spend more time with the patient. What an APN can also provide is a constant face to the patient,” she said. “That increases patient satisfaction and quality of care. When you have an ongoing relationship with a patient, you can quickly see when something relates to a later medical event.”

Birk-Dye works with a number of patients suffering from Hepatitis C — an inflammation of the liver.

“It’s a difficult disease to treat. The medication is not great. The patients rely on me and my staff to get them through the treatment. They need support. We provide that,” Birk-Dye said.

“It’s high-risk medication. It’s important we keep track of it. I can see those patients more often. I know when they walk into the office if something’s off. That makes this job everything I expected and more.”