HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - Primary-care providers have been the backbone of the rural healthcare system, and there are fewer of them to go around as the United States is seeing a growing physician shortage.
Parts of all 46 counties in South Carolina, including Horry County, are considered “medically underserved,” according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. Because of this, the doctor-patient ratio is low. But thanks to a recently signed law, nurse practitioners are able to stand alongside primary-care physicians and provide basic healthcare services to South Carolinians.
The law allows more freedom for nurse practitioners, allowing them to prescribe more medications and basic things like handicap placards, hospice care and physical therapy. S.C. Sen. Tom Davis authored the bill and says the whole objective is to increase the number of providers of care.
“There are not enough healthcare providers in South Carolina to meet the needs of its residents. In order to truly improve access to health care, there must be an increase in the supply of providers,” said Davis.
Dr. Paul Richardson, the chief medical officer at Conway Medical Center, says while Horry County continues to see growth, it’s still considered a rural area. With the growing population, there’s just not enough physicians available to keep up with the demand.
The bill, S.345, lifts restrictions on nurse practitioners in prescribing medications and referring patients to diagnostic and long-term care. It expands the scope of what nurse practitioners are able to do without direct approval from their supervising physicians. It also means they will be able to write more prescriptions without the supervisor sign-off.
The bill also removes a limit on nurse practitioners that kept them from practicing more than 45 miles from a collaborating physician. Health professionals say patients, especially in rural areas of the state, should notice shorter wait time and improved access to care.
Prior to the law, a physician could only supervise no more than three advanced practice providers. But now, they can supervise up to six.
Davis estimates there are 3,600 primary care physicians in the state, which ranks South Carolina 40th among states with just 77 physicians per 100,000 residents.
Richardson says having more nurse practitioners will help reach more patients and provide greater access to healthcare.
“More than anything else, it really expands our reach and allows us to take care of more patients, especially on the primary care front since so many of our patients now these days are taken care of by nurse practitioners or other advanced practice providers. It actually enhances that, it makes it a little easier to do our job, which is excellent,” said Richardson.
At Conway Medical Center, in response to the physician shortage, they’re getting ready to welcome their first class of family medicine residents in July 2020. The hope is to train medical students locally in hopes to have them stay and practice in Horry County afterwards.