Nurse Practitioners

In coming years the US could see growing shortages in the availability of primary care physicians (PCPs). With the number of individuals seeking care increasing and the current medical system continuing to incentivize physicians to specialize, the number of available PCPs will decline proportional to the population. To fill that gap, Ezra Klein and others have asserted that expanded scope of practice will allow nurse practitioners (NPs) to serve as viable substitutes for primary care shortages.

While NPs serve a vital role in the system and meet need, the argument that they are a 1:1 substitute for PCPs (but for the greedy doctors and pesky regulations holding them back) is singular and shortsighted. The argument also fails to address broader policies that influence both NP and PCP behaviors. Policies that unjustifiably lead to the unequal distribution of caregivers, location or expertise, inherently parlay into unequal care for patients. Sadly, a broader scope than “freeing nurse practitioners” is necessary to meet primary care needs, as NPs are complements, not substitutes. Policy must address the need for more primary care and assist to realign the system to meet our country’s basic care and equality through redistribution.

Primary care is the foundation of the evolving health care system, with equal access the intended goal of the ACA. Along the way to meeting future demand for primary care, NPs can be increasingly utilized to meet the needs of Americans and improve the health of the nation. And let it be known I am a strong proponent and supporter of nurse practitioners and all non-physician providers and coordinators. However, the argument that most NPs practice in primary care and will fill the primary care gap, estimated at about 66 million Americans, is inaccurate. It isn’t a 1:1 substitute, especially given that models of the solo practitioner are vanishing in lieu of complementary and team-based care.

The US, unlike many western countries, does not actively regulate the number, type, or geographic distribution of its health workforce, deferring to market forces instead. Those market forces, however, are paired with a payment system whose incentives favor high volume, high return services rather than health or outcomes. These incentives are reflected in where hospitals steer funding for training, and in the outputs of that training.

Throughout the US there are geographic pockets that fail to attract medical professionals of all kinds, creating true primary care deserts. These deserts occur in part due to the unequal distribution of practitioners in the health care system, with our medical schools and salary opportunities producing low numbers of generalists across the board. We have even continued to see shortages in nurses throughout the US.

Continue reading “Why Nurse Practitioners Will Not Solve the Primary Care Crisis”

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“Half of primary care physicians in survey would leave medicine … if they had an alternative.” — CNN, November 2008

“Doctors are increasingly leaving the Medicare program given its unpredictable funding.” – ForbesJanuary 2013

Doctors, it seems, love medicine so much … that they’re always threatening to quit.

In some cases, it’s all in how the question is asked. (Because of methodology, several eye-catching surveys have since been discredited.)

But physicians’ mounting frustration is a very real problem, one that gets to the heart of how health care is delivered and paid for. Is the Affordable Care Act helping or hurting? The evidence is mixed.

Doctors’ Thoughts on Medicare: Not as Dire as Originally Reported

The Wall Street Journal last month portrayed physician unhappiness with Medicare as a burning issue, with a cover story that detailed why many more doctors are opting out of the program.

And yes, the number of doctors saying no to Medicare has proportionately risen quite a bit — from 3,700 doctors in 2009 to 9,539 in 2012. (And in some cases, Obamacare has been a convenient scapegoat.)

But that’s only part of the story.

What the Journal didn’t report is that, per CMS, the number of physicians who agreed to accept Medicare patients continues to grow year-over-year, from 705,568 in 2012 to 735,041 in 2013.

Continue reading “Why Reports of the Death of Physician Participation in Medicare May Be Greatly Exaggerated”

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In my last  post on California and Texas’s imminent expansion of their scope of practice regulations, I didn’t cover one important question: what do patients actually want?

Fortunately, a study just released in Health Affairs looked into it, and the results are clear: many patients want to be seen by nurse practitioners (NPs) and physician’s assistants (PAs) – especially if it allows them to be seen sooner.

To be clear: generally, Americans still prefer being seen by a physician. But preferring a NP/PA – or “not having a preference” between a NP/PA and a physician – is a big deal; it insinuates that, for certain ailments, the public views a NP/PA as just as effective a clinician. That has significant repercussions for how care is delivered, particularly for young people and underserved populations.

The researchers conducted a survey that focused on three different scenarios to judge patient preferences: a straight-up comparison of preference for physicians vs. NPs/PAs; a scenario where a patient could see a NP/PA today vs. a physician tomorrow for a minor ailment; and a scenario where a patient could see a NP/PA today vs. a physician in three days for a minor ailment. Continue reading “Data Points: Scope of Practice. When You Get Right Down To It, We’d Rather See a NP/PA Than Wait …”

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“The more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know.”

You will hear this statement not just from physicians, but from lots of other folks engaged in scholarly work of all stripes. That’s because it is not merely true; it is a deep and universal truth that permeates all of mankind’s intellectual endeavors.

The implication of this for the practice of medicine is that a little knowledge can be very dangerous.

What do I, as a fully trained, extensively experienced primary care physician bring to the evaluation of patients who seek out my care that cannot be matched by so-called “mid-level providers” (PAs and NPs)? It is not (always) my knowledge, but rather the experience to know when I do not know something. In short, I know when to ask someone else’s opinion in consultation or referral.

I had a scary experience lately with a PA who didn’t even know what she didn’t know (and who still probably doesn’t realize it.)

The patient had been bit on the hand by a cat. I saw the injury approximately 9 hours after it had occurred. The patient had cleaned it thoroughly as soon as it had happened, and by the time I saw it, it was still clean, bleeding freely, not particularly red or swollen, and only a little painful. Still; cat bites are nasty, especially on the hands. Therefore I began treatment with oral amoxicillin-clavulanate, and told the patient to soak it in hot water several times a day.

Six hours later (after one oral dose of antibiotic) the patient called me back: the wound was now much more painful, red, swollen, and there were red streaks going from the hand all the way up to his elbow. Frankly, I was a little puzzled. He was already on antibiotics; the single dose probably hadn’t had enough time to make much of an impact. And yet the infection was clearly progressing.
Continue reading “Not Knowing What You Don’t Know”

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The Accountable Primary Care Model: New Hope for Medicare and Primary Care

Primary care has long been something of an outcast in the medical profession — and despite convincing outcomes and a validated assessment tool, checkered reimbursement has brought the Institute of Medicine’s Primary Care Model to the brink of demise.

But the accountable care movement, and some Medicare Advantage plans in particular, have breathed new life into primary care and offered new hope for the struggling Medicare system. At St. Louis-based Essence Healthcare, a 4.5-star Medicare Advantage plan, network primary care physicians’ deep experience in providing accountable care has spawned innovations that advance primary care and make progress toward the “Triple Aim Plus One” (outlined in C9 below). Their success is the result of five years of active practice transformation and continuous improvement in a risk-bearing environment.

The best practice experience from these front-line physicians can be summarized in the Accountable Delivery System Institute’s Accountable Primary Care Model. This model embraces the four pillars outlined in the Institute of Medicine/Starfield model and expands them for Nine C’s of Accountable Primary Care Delivery. They are:

C1: First contact means that care is initially sought from the Primary Care Physician/Clinician (PCP) when new health or medical needs arise. In a nationally representative sample of more than 20,000 episodes of care, when these events began with PCP visits, as distinguished from some other source of care in the system, costs were 53% lower. This cost differential persisted after controlling for ER visits, health status, socio-demographics, and other relevant variables.

Continue reading “The Nine C’s of Successful Accountable Primary Care Delivery”

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This week the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) issued a new report describing its vision of primary care’s future. Not surprisingly, the report talks about medical homes, with patient-centered, team-based care.

More surprisingly, though, it makes a point to insist that physicians, not nurse practitioners, should lead primary care practices. The important questions are whether nurse practitioners are qualified to independently practice primary care, and whether they can compensate for the primary care physician shortage. On both counts the AAFP thinks the answer is “no.”

AAFP marshals an important argument to bolster its position. Family physicians have four times as much education and training, accumulating an average of 21,700 hours, while nurse practitioners receive 5,350 hours.

It is unclear how this plays out in the real world but, intuitively, we all want physicians in a pinch. Researchers with the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews reviewed studies in 2004 and 2009 comparing the relative efficacy of primary care physicians and nurse practitioners. They wrote “appropriately trained nurses can produce as high quality care as primary care doctors and achieve as good health outcomes for patients.” But they also acknowledged that the research was limited.

There is no question that nurse practitioners can provide excellent routine care. For identifying and managing complexity, though, physicians’ far deeper training is a big advantage. In other words, difficult, expensive cases are likely to fare better from a physician’s care.

Continue reading “The Wrong Battles”

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Vikram Khanna
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Joe Flower
Contributing Editor

Michael Millenson
Contributing Editor

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