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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Subsidies: Will You Receive a Tax Credit to Help You Buy Insurance in 2014? How Much?

Beginning in 2014, millions of Americans will discover that they qualify for subsidies designed to help them purchase their own health insurance. The aid will come in the form of tax credits, and many will be surprised by how generous they are.

Not only low-income, but moderate-income families earning up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) – currently $44,680 for a single person and $92,200 for a family of four – will make the cut.

Yesterday, I posted about subsidies on healthinsurance.org. The post includes a calculator which tells you whether you would be eligible, and how much you would receive. Even if your employer offers health benefits, you might qualify for a tax credit  if the plan too expensive, or too skimpy. (I explain how the government defines those terms.) I also explain how the government calculates subsidies, and what happens if you live a place where healthcare is particularly expensive.

Click here for the full post   If you like, come back here to comment.

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Urologists Threaten the Autonomy of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force

Over at HealthNewsReview.org  Gary Schwitzer has published a disturbing piece that looks at American Urological Association support for a bll that would make “significant changes to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.”

The guest post is written by Dr.Richard Hoffman, who is both one of HealthNewsReivew’s reviewers, and an editor at the Informed Medical Decisions Foundation a group that promotes “shared decision making.”   The Foundation, which was co-founded by Dr.Jack Wennber, the father of the Dartmouth Reserach,uses medical evidence to produce outstanding videos, pamphlets and web-based programs that help patients understand the potential risks and benefits of  elective surgeries and tests..  (I have written about “shared decision making” in past posts ). 

Below, an excerpt from Hoffman’s piece:

“Last week, the Supreme Court largely upheld the Affordable Care Act. Two weeks ago, legislation (H.R. 5998) was introduced that threatens the autonomy of the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

“The legislation proposes to mandate a more transparent process for guideline development, a greater role for specialists and advocacy groups, and eliminating the Department of Health and Human Services’ secretarial discretion to withhold Medicare funding for interventions that lack convincing evidence for benefit The legislation, which comes on the heels of the Task Force’s controversial D rating against prostate cancer screening, is strongly supported by several prominent urological associations. 

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Today, the Supremes sang.

Today, the Supremes sang.

To the surprise of many, they upheld the individual mandate requiring that most Americans buy insurance–or face a modest penalty. The vote was 5-4 with Chief Justice Roberts joining the majority.  The court overturned just one small part of the legislation. Under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government is offering states funding to expand their Medicaid programs. Washington had threatened to withhold all Medicaid funding if a state refused to participate in the expansion. The Court ruled that the federal government cannot penalize the states in that way.

I was not entirely surprised by the Court’s decision. Indeed,  on March 26, the day that the Supreme Court began to hear oral arguments, I wrote:

“For months, the media has been feasting on the story, calling it “The Case That Could Change Health Care Forever.”

“Yesterday, the Baltimore Sun declared that ‘The most important six hours of recent American history will start to unfold on Monday.’

“No question, the story is sizzling. And I hate to be a wet blanket. But let me suggest that the hullaballoo is totally unwarranted.

Why the law won’t be overturned

“I cannot believe for a minute that this Court wants to go down in history as the Gang of Nine that quashed the most important piece of legislation that Congress has passed in 47 years. If it did, we could find ourselves on the brink of a constitutional crisis. It is simply not up to the Supreme Court to rewrite legislation passed by Congress.”

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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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