A Doctor Confides, “My Primary Doc is a Nurse”

Last week I interviewed a doctor who told me that his primary care doc is a “physician assistant”  who has been trained to deliver primary care.   He said it casually, dropping the fact into a long conversation.

Dr. David Kauff is an internist at Seattle’s Group Health Cooperative (GHC), an organization that has a fabulous reputation–both among patients and among physicians—for its primary care program.  One reason is that at Group Health, doctors, physicians assistants and nurse practitioners work together in teams. “The success of our model is based on the fact that everyone in this together; we are corralled by a common purpose,” says Kauff, who also serves as GHC’s  Medical  Director for Practice and Leadership. 

I’ll be writing more about Group Health Cooperative in a few days.

 In this post, I would like to focus on the growing role of Nurse Practitioners (NPs) and Physician Assistants (PAs) as clinicians.  NPs are registered nurses who have gone on to earn a master’s or a doctorate. Some specialize in areas such as anesthesiology, pediatrics (pediatric nurses) or Ob-Gyn (certified nurse-midwives). NP’s can run clinics; some run their own practices.     

By contrast, physician assistants (PAs) don’t usually work alone. While physicians may not be on-site, typically doctors oversee their work.  

PAs are formally trained to provide diagnostic, therapeutic, and preventive health care services.  They take medical histories, examine and treat patients, order and interpret laboratory tests and X- rays, and make diagnoses. In many cases, they did not begin their careers as nurses. They may have been  paramedics, respiratory therapists, or emergency care technicians (EMTs) before becoming PAs.  

Currently, 17 states, plus the District of Columbia, let nurse practitioners operate independently.  In 33 states regulations vary. As this map  reveals, in some places NPs are not allowed to prescribe medication. In others, they may have to consult with a physician when treating patients.

It’s worth noting that NPs enjoy greater freedom in the Northwest, the Upper Middle West, and Northern New England (areas that some healthcare reformers refer to as “Canada South” because these states are in the vanguard of reform) as well as in the Southwest, where many NP’s started working in group practices, and they went out and established their own clinics. Nationwide, about 6,000 nurses operate independent primary-care practices.                                               

                                              Why Physicians Object

Today, 14 states are debating whether NPs should be allowed to practice on their own.  Many emphasize the difference in education and years of training. Though in truth, the length of training is not so different. Becoming a primary care doctor requires four years of medical school plus three years of residency. A nurse practitioner  attends nursing school for four years, then spends two to three years in graduate school, depending on whether he or she is getting an M.A. or a Ph.D. (In 2015, all nurse practitioners will be required to earn a Ph.D.) 

Most NPs also have nursing experience. At the University of Michigan, for instance, the average candidate admitted to the NP program has 7 years of hands-on experience as a nurse.  But while the number of years spent training are not so different, as I explain below, traditionally ,the nature of that training has been very different.   

Doctors say that they are worried about patient safety. “I see it as physicians being true to their oath ”  Dr. Adris Hoven, president-elect of the American Medical Association recently told Marketplace Health Care’s Dan Gorenstein.   Hoven insists that doctors are “not threatened” by NPs.  “At the end of the day what they want to do is deliver the best healthcare possible.”  

Dr. John Rowe, a professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia’s School of Public Health, doesn’t buy the argument.  As he points out, nurse practitioners are already working without primary care doctors: “The fact is this is going on in 16-17 states,” he told Gorenstein, “and there is no evidence that it’s not good for the patient.”  A recent Health Policy Brief from Health Affairs and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation backs him up: “studies comparing the quality of care provided by physicians and nurse practitioners have found that clinical outcomes are similar.”

At the same time, Rowe understands why doctors are uncomfortable. “The physicians feel they have something special to offer,” he explains. “And being told there are individuals who are less well trained can do it as well as they could is a very difficult lesson for them.”                                    

When I last wrote about nurse practitioners, back in 2010, one physician/reader (“Sharon M.D.”) was exceptionally candid on this point:

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Self-fulfilling Media Narratives: How One Man Wound Up Deciding the Fate of Healthcare Reform

Personally, I am delighted that Chief Justice Roberts voted to uphold the Affordable Care Act (ACA)   But, I am troubled that the fate of U.S. healthcare turned on one man’s opinion. This is not how things are supposed to work in a democracy.

Healthcare represents 16% of our economy. It touches all of our lives. If we don’t like the laws our elected representatives pass, we can vote them out of office.  The Supreme Court, on the other hand, doesn’t have to worry whether its decisions reflect the will of the people. The Justices are appointed for life.  This is why they are not charged with setting public policy.

                        The Media Shapes Our Expectations 

As I suggested when oral arguments began back in March,  a “media narrative” drove the case to the Court– a fiction that caught on, in the press, on television, and in the blogosphere, where it began to take on a reality of its own. A handful of “state attorneys general and governors” saw “a political opportunity” and floated the idea that the law might be unconstitutional.  The media picked up the story, repeated the heated rhetoric, and “fanned the flames … Before long, what constitutional experts thought was a non-story became a Supreme Court case.”

These media narratives are based on what “that those in power and in the media have concluded is likely to happen,” says Lyle Denniston, known by some as the “Dean” of Supreme Court reporters.  Writing on “Scotusblog.com,” he observes: “One ‘narrative’ about the health care law began building up in Washington, and perhaps beyond, right after the Supreme Court held its hearings in late March.  The mandate, it was said, was going to be struck down, the government’s lawyer had blown it, and the President was going to be deeply wounded politically over the loss of his treasured domestic initiative.”  Some media outlets were so persuaded by their own myth-making that initially, they reported that the Court had ruled against reform!

Denniston explains that once the story goes viral, the conventional wisdom is then repeated, over and over, until “often, it seems, such ‘narratives’ become self-fulfilling.”

He then points to a “currently prevailing ‘narrative’ that most of the country is stubbornly committed to the Tea Party’s wish to limit the power of the federal government.”   The facts contradict the  fiction: Tea Party Candidates have been “losing  steam” in recent elections   In April, a WashingtonPost/ABC poll revealed that support for the Tea Party among young adults had plunged to 31%– down from 52% in the fall 2011. Half of those polled said that the more they heard about the Tea Party, the less they liked it.

I wrote this post for healthinsurance.org, where it appeared earliler today, To Read the Rest of the Post, go to http://www.healthinsurance.org/blog/2012/07/12/self-fulfilling-media-narratives/

 

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What if the Court rules that insurers don’t have to cover people suffering from pre-existing conditions?

The following post originally appeared on the healthinsurance.org blog.

In March, Ethan Fidler, a 10-year-old from England who had just had a tumor removed from his brain flew to Florida where doctors at the University of Florida used proton therapy to blast lingering cancer cells. (While proton therapy is widely available in Western Europe, the UK government has only recently approved funding the technology. Ethan couldn’t wait.)

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The facts behind the controversy over breast feeding

The following post originally appeared on the healthinsurance.org blog.

First, a purposefully salacious TIME cover featuring a mother nursing her three-year-old stirred controversy. Then a photo of Air Force moms breastfeeding while in uniform sparked outrage.

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If the Individual Mandate is Struck Down, What’s Next?

The following post originally appeared on the healthinsurance.org blog.

In Sunday’s edition of the New York Times, blogger Maggie Mahar responded briefly to the question, “What would the future hold if the Supreme Court strikes down the most controversial part of the health care law, the individual mandate?” We asked Mahar to elaborate on the question in this post.

Betting the individual mandate will be upheld

Ezekiel Emanuel says he has been betting on how the Supreme Court will decide the case challenging the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA).

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Health Wonk Review: ‘Voices from the Blogosphere’

The following post originally appeared on the healthinsurance.org blog.

This week, Maggie Mahar edits the Health Wonk Review, a biweekly compendium of the best of the health policy blogs.

Voices from the Blogosphere, May 21-June 6

I’ve decided to let the “Voices” of healthcare bloggers become the theme of this edition of Health Wonk Review. Some are passionate; others are dispassionate; some are disarmingly candid; others are angry.

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Can states thwart Affordable Care Act by refusing to build state health insurance exchanges?

The following post originally appeared on the healthinsurance.org blog.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) calls on the states to create health insurance exchanges – marketplaces where individuals and small businesses can shop for and compare health insurance plans. Beginning in 2014, insurers peddling policies on an exchange will have to meet the ACA’s standards by covering “essential benefits,” capping out-of-pocket expenses for individuals, and offering more transparent information about costs and benefits.

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Despite health reform, age rating will still deliver stiff insurance premiums for many older Americans

The following post originally appeared on the healthinsurance.org blog.

When she thinks about health insurance, 60-year old Nancy Peterson fights panic. “You think that this could never happen to you. I’ve always had insurance; I’ve always had a good job.”

But not long ago, her job was eliminated. Now, she doesn’t know how she is going to afford insurance when the COBRA policy that extends her former employer’s group insurance expires next year.

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Health Reform: A Huge Victory for Women

The following post originally appeared on the healthinsurance.org blog.

Women pay dearly for being women

The male body has long been considered the “standard” for health care coverage. Having a woman’s body is seen as an expensive anomaly, and women pay dearly for being different.

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How did the challenge to the Affordable Care Act ever make it to the U.S. Supreme Court?

The following post originally appeared on the healthinsurance.org blog.

In 2009, when someone asked Nancy Pelosi a question implying that health reform legislation might be unconstitutional, she replied: “Are you serious?”

Pelosi wasn’t alone. At the outset, many legal scholars considered the challenge to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) both “implausible” and “frivolous.”

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