The nurse practitioner is more important than ever in today's dynamic health care environment. But unfortunately the role of nurse practitioner — technically, the "advanced practice registered nurse" — is frequently misinterpreted, which keeps these professionals from reaching their full potential to help patients.For example, it is surprising and disappointing that despite years of clinical practice as registered nurses, advanced education and hundreds of hours of clinical residencies, nurse practitioners in Florida are not permitted to practice to the full extent of their education and training. Florida is, in fact, the only state currently limiting nurse practitioners' prescribing authority. Why are nurse practitioners so important right now? Let's start with who they are and how they can serve.Nurse practitioners are men and women educated beyond the baccalaureate level, qualified to provide geriatric, adult and family health care. The Health Resources and Services Administration currently reports more than 55 million Americans live in areas with physician shortages. This shortage of general practitioners comes at a time when the Affordable Care Act enables more families to obtain health care but are then faced, instead, with limited access to physicians or long waiting periods for even the most basic of care. Nurse practitioners are a solution to this shortage.In 2011, the Institute of Medicine issued a report on the Future of Nursing, which included a recommendation that nurses be permitted to practice to their full scope of education and training. So far, 21 states, plus the District of Columbia, have adopted this recommendation. Many of these states were quick to see the value of improving access to health care, especially for rural and underserved populations. Decades of data show no discernible differences in patient outcomes between nurse practitioners and physicians in key indicators of health, safety, satisfaction and reduced visits to the emergency room. Furthermore, effective collaboration between physicians and nurse practitioners provides efficient utilization of the unique strengths of each profession, creating improved health-care outcomes for individuals and families.For more than 40 years, the University of South Florida College of Nursing has educated the nursing leaders of the future. In addition to our traditional four-year baccalaureate degree, we prepare nursing scientists and clinical nurse practitioners at the graduate level who are instrumental in improving the health care of our community. Our practitioner program is highly competitive and admittance is based on rigorous criteria. Recently, the University of South Florida College of Nursing graduate program was named by U.S. News & World Report as the best nursing graduate program in the state and was ranked in the top 8 percent nationwide. Furthermore, our National Institutes of Health research ranking is the highest within the Florida university system's nursing programs. An important way to address the increasingly critical nursing shortage in Florida is to retain the best and brightest nurses and nurse practitioners to remain members of our community and to make this region an attractive and progressive workforce environment. One way to do that is to remove regulatory hurdles — such as prescribing authority — that keep them from doing jobs for which they trained and are qualified.Dianne Morrison-Beedy is senior associate vice president USF Health and dean, College of Nursing, University of South Florida. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.