As the health care workforce shifts to treat patients in less expensive primary care settings, the number of nurse practitioners has nearly doubled in the last decade to more 200,000, new data shows.

The American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) says there are 205,000 licensed nurse practitioners compared to 106,000 in 2004. Such advanced degree nurses perform myriad primary care functions, diagnose, prescribe medications and conduct physical exams.

There is unprecedented demand for nurse practitioners to work with primary care doctors to manage populations of patients, keeping them healthy and out of the hospital. “The explosive growth of the nurse practitioner profession is a public health boon considering our nation’s skyrocketing demand for high-quality, accessible care,” Ken Miller, AANP’s president said.

Insurers are coaxing people toward population health via patient-centered medical homes and accountable care organizations. Under such “value-based” approaches, providers work to keep patients healthy, taking their medications, exercising and getting care upfront in a doctor’s office, a health center or retail clinic.

Retailers like CVS Health (CVS) and Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA) have hired thousands of nurse practitioners. Walgreens, which opened about 40 clinics last year, has 1,200 practitioners at more than 420 clinics while CVS 2,700 practitioners across its 960 clinics. “In the past five years, we’ve opened around 500 clinics and have been able to recruit enough practitioners to staff all of these sites with more on the way,” Carolyn Castel, a CVS vice president, told Forbes.

Retailers see millions more Americans with health coverage under the Affordable Care Act, which has exacerbated a doctor shortage. Seeing a void, practitioners are lobbying to change scope of practice laws to allow them to do more. “Nurse practitioners are serving as a lifeline for patients, many who would otherwise struggle to access care,” David Hebert, AANP’s said.

From Forbes, by Bruce Japsen, January 25, 2015

Also published in MM&M, January 21, 2015