I doubt you’ll hear this perspective anywhere else anytime soon, but there are some very interesting developments in health care underway. By way of introduction, a few decades ago, physicians abdicated the ownership and preeminent leadership role in healthcare, leaving the industry to the business minds of HMOs. During these early days, non-physician corporations actually owning medical practices and developing practice parameters were outlawed as to ensure that sufficient protections would remain in place for autonomous (and presumably honorable) medical practice. The combination of for profit hospitals and the advent of contract medical practice management groups (particularly in emergency medicine, hospitalist medicine and radiology) combined to erode away at the corporate practice of medicine laws to where even though the laws are still on the books, suits to enforce it are now routinely defeated. Today, in addition to emergency room physicians, radiologists, surgeons, hospitalists, and anesthesiologists are more likely to be employees than owners of a practice.
In recent times, health care costs have skyrocketed to 17% of our economy, while 50 million Americans went without insurance. Meanwhile, the combination of a shortage of primary care physicians and for-profit entities’ desire to cut costs has led to the development and proliferation of alternative, less costly methods of paying individuals to provide health care. Most notably, this has included the development of advance practice nurses (e.g. nurse practitioners and nurse anesthetists – instead of family doctors and anesthesiologists). Similar interest in cost savings has led to nurses assuming senior managerial positions in hospitals instead of MBA-type executives.
It is against this backdrop that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka ‘Obamacare’) passed, seeking to infuse 30 million more paying patients into the primary care arena. With ongoing physician shortages unable to meet this demand, and with there being downward cost pressure on salaries due to the goals of the ACA and desires of corporations, it’s reasonable to predict that we will see a dramatic increase in primary care nurse practitioners (NPs) and physician assistants (PAs), which will lead to further abandonment of primary care as a physician specialty.
Meanwhile, nurses have stepped up to fill the void. In addition to the ongoing advancement of Nurse Practitioners, nurses have successfully lobbied for and created a new provider entity: ‘The Doctorate in Nursing Practice’. It is important to note that NPs and PAs can successfully treat about 85% of the things physicians routinely see. Quality concerns aside, it is an important public health consideration that additional healthcare professionals and health options are being established to fill the need of care for tens of millions of individuals more likely to use the healthcare system.
Meanwhile, regarding your doctors, a conceivable end result is physicians are being marginalized in virtually every aspect of health care. It is easy to see a future in health care 25 years from now where cost concerns have been addressed by nurses having replaced physicians in more specialties than just primary care and anesthesia, and nurses have more control of the hospital apparatus than physicians. Physicians remain oblivious to what’s happening under their noses and an insufficient interest in contributing to healthcare solutions in the ways nurses have. The Straight, No Chaser perspective is given the large segments of society that continue not to have access to care (even with implementation of the Affordable Care Act, it is estimated that 20 million American still won’t have insurance), new innovative options to address these needs are welcome and have a place in the system. What’s next is for society to ensure that this transition occurs with appropriate quality controls and public education.
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