Who Prescribes Medication?

Instructor: David White
Medication can be an important part of any treatment plan, but when it comes to prescription drugs, you will need a specific person to order the medication. Through this lesson, you will learn who can write prescriptions and when a referral might be needed.

What is Prescription Medication?

For those receiving treatment for physical or mental health conditions, medications can be a critically important element of their treatment plan. Unlike the over-the-counter drugs that you might take occasionally for things like headaches or a cold, these are generally prescription medications, meaning that by law they must be ordered by a health care or mental health care provider and filled by a pharmacist.

Prescription medications are drugs that are only ordered by certain doctors.

When it comes to having medication prescribed, you're probably used to being given a prescription by your primary care doctor. This person is a medical doctor (MD) or has other credentials that allow them to prescribe medication, such as a doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO) or a doctor of dental surgery (DDS). These people provide general physical or dental care and will often prescribe medications for you when you experience acute pain (short-term) or have a long-term chronic condition.

While these are providers that we tend to think of when we think of prescription medication, there are actually a number of different people that can prescribe, depending on the circumstances and fields in which they work.

Primary Care

Our primary care physicians are the health care providers that we see for ordinary things like check-ups or for other physical concerns. However, while we generally say (or assume) that we're going to 'the doctor,' there's a good chance that you're not actually seeing an MD. This is not to suggest that your doctor isn't a fully qualified medical doctor; rather, there are different types of providers that work in a primary care office. These include a advanced practice registered nurse (APRN), who have completed a master's degree in nursing, have considerable experience, and are licensed by the state.

Because private practice doctors tend to open an office in which they are one of a few doctors, if not the only doctor, they rely on support staff that includes advanced practice registered nurses and physician's assistants (PA). Like an MD, these people generally have the qualifications to prescribe medications and their presence ensures that people don't have to sit around and wait for a doctor to have time to see them.

Mental Health Care

You've no doubt heard the terms psychiatrist and psychologist before in terms of mental health care. Although these two are often used interchangeably, they're actually two very different roles. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who has chosen to make mental health their specialty. A psychologist, on the other hand, is not a medical doctor; rather, they are focused on psychiatric research or mental health counseling. Among the many important differences between these two roles is that psychiatrists can prescribe medication to patients and psychologists cannot.

Psychiatrists are doctors that specialize on mental health and illness.

So you might be wondering why you would need a different doctor to provide certain types of medication. After all, if your primary care doctor can prescribe, why not just get it from them? Technically, your primary care doctor can prescribe mental health medications, but that doesn't mean that they want to or will. Most primary care doctors specialize in physical medicine and aren't too familiar with mental illnesses. Therefore, they will generally refer their patients to a psychiatrist for treatment.

Because they specialize in mental health care, the psychiatrist can evaluate the patient and will recognize symptoms of mental illness that an MD might not recognize. Based on that evaluation, the psychiatrist will prescribe certain medications to manage the illness, which can range from short-term use of anti-anxiety medications to long-term medications for things like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.

Like the primary care doctors, a psychiatrist might also have support staff with the ability to evaluate patients and prescribe medication. These are usually psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNP) and they help to manage the caseload and ensure that people don't have to wait for long periods to see a prescribing doctor.

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