We wholeheartedly agree with this article that Nurse Practitioners across the country should be allowed to practice without a doctor’s consent in a variety of medical areas.
In March, Nebraska became the 20th state to allow nurses with the most advanced degrees to practice without a doctor’s oversight in a variety of medical fields. Maryland recently followed suit and eight more states are considering similar legislation.
What does all this mean? Nurses in Nebraska with a master’s degree or better, known as nurse practitioners, no longer have to get a signed agreement from a doctor to be able to order and interpret diagnostic tests, prescribe medications and administer treatments.
These changes are long overdue.
The preponderance of empirical evidence indicates that, compared to physicians, nurse practitioners provide as good — if not better — quality of care. As I’ve written previously, patients are often more satisfied with nurse practitioner care — and sometimes even prefer it.
The Institute of Medicine is unambiguously clear about this:
No studies suggest that APRNs [Advanced Practice Registered Nurse] are less able than physicians to deliver care that is safe, effective, and efficient or that care is better in states with more restrictive scope of practice regulations for APRNs.
In addition, see this review of the literature in Health Affairs.
In general, nurse practitioners have the skills to prescribe, treat and do most things a primary care physician can do. They generally must have completed a Registered Nurse and a Nurse Practitioner Program and have a Masters or PhD degree. In addition, there are physician assistants, registered nurses, licensed vocational nurses, emergency medical technicians, paramedics and army medics. In most states, each of these categories has its own set of restrictions and regulations, delineating what the practitioners can and can’t do.
What should each of these professionals be allowed to do? Whatever they’ve been trained to do.
The doctors counter that someone who hasn’t trained to be a doctor might miss important symptoms or clues that a physician might catch. This observation is true but trivial. Every professional might miss something that someone who is better trained might catch. A specialist might catch something a primary care physician might miss. A specialist in one field (say, oncology) might catch something a specialist in some other field (say ENT) might miss.
Perhaps more relevant to common experience, Emergency Medical Technicians riding in ambulances are treating victims of accidents and emergencies every day. Would the care be slightly less risky if we put doctors in all those ambulances? Maybe. Is anyone seriously suggesting that we do that? Of course not.
Think of health care as a large market in which everyone has to make decisions about whether the patient-provider nexus is the right fit. It’s not just the providers who have to decide whether the problem lies within their area of competence. Patients must make those decisions too. In Britain (under socialized medicine), patients make such decisions all the time. For routine problems, most Britons see a National Health Service physician. But “if it’s serious, go private” is a common bit of advice in that country.
How do professionals handle these decisions? From the most part quite well. Walk-in clinics (where nurses deliver care following computerized protocols) have been around for at least a decade. Studies show that the nurses follow best practices as well or better than traditional primary care physicians. And I am not aware of any serious, reported cases of nurses failing to distinguish between cases they are competent to handle and those they are not.
But even if a nurse did make a serious mistake, doctors make mistakes too. There is no such thing as a risk free world. We encounter tradeoffs between cost and risk every day. There is no reason for politicians (beholden to special interests) to make these decision for us.
In Texas, which has some of the most stringent regulations in the country, however, a nurse practitioner can’t do much of anything without being supervised by a doctor who must:
•Not oversee more than four nurses at one time.
•Not oversee nurses located outside of a 75 mile radius.
•Conduct a random review of 10 percent of the nurses’ patient charts every 10 days.
•Be on the premises 20 percent of the time.
These restrictions make it virtually impossible for Texas’ 8,600 nurse practitioners to practice outside the office of a primary care physician. The Texas requirement that a doctor supervising nurse practitioners be physically present and spend at least 20 percent of her time overseeing them creates an incentive for the physician to require nurses to be employees, rather than self-employed professionals. When practitioners are employed by a doctor, the physician meets state supervision requirements simply by showing up. This allows the doctor to see her own patients while generating additional revenue from patients seen by the practitioners.
These regulations have the greatest impact on the poor, especially the rural poor. The farther a nurse is located from a doctor’s office, the less likely the physician will be willing to make the drive to supervise the nurse. This means that people living in poverty-stricken Texas counties must drive long distances, miss work and take their kids out of school in order to get simple prescriptions and uncomplicated diagnoses. This problem might be alleviated if nurse practitioners were allowed to practice independently in rural areas. But, under Texas law, these practices must be located within 75 miles of a supervising physician. A physician with four nurses located in rural areas could drive hundreds of miles a week to review the nurses’ patient charts. The result is that doctors in Texas don’t receive a return on investment sufficient to induce them to supervise nurse practitioners.
If all this sounds like the reinvention of the Medieval Guild system, that’s exactly what it is. In Capitalism and Freedom, Milton Friedman argued that these labor market restrictions are no more justified today than they were several centuries ago. The proper role of government, said Friedman, is to certify the skills of various practitioners; then let consumers decide what services to buy from them.
Contributer: John C. Goodman