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The Family Doctor, Minus the M.D.
The Family Health Clinic of Carroll County, in Delphi, Ind., and its smaller sibling about 40 minutes away in Monon provide full-service health care for about 10,000 people a year, most of them farmers or employees of the local pork production plant. About half the patients are Hispanic but there are also many German Baptist Brethren. Most of the patients are uninsured, and pay according to their income — the vast majority paying the $20 minimum charge for an appointment. About 30 percent are on Medicaid. The clinics, which are part of Purdue University’s School of Nursing, offer family care, pediatrics, mental health and pregnancy care. Many patients come in for chronic problems: obesity, diabetes, hypertension, depression, alcoholism.
Doctors are trained to focus on a disease. Nurses are trained to think more holistically.
What these clinics don’t offer are doctors. They are two of around 250 health clinics across America run completely by nurse practitioners: nurses with a master’s degree that includes two or three years of advanced training in diagnosing and treating disease. A proposal endorsed by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing for 2015 would require nurse practitioners to have a doctorate of nursing practice, which would mean two or three more years of study. Nurse practitioners do everything primary care doctors do, including prescribing, although some states require that a physician provide review. Like doctors, of course, nurse practitioners refer patients to specialists or a hospital when needed.
America has a serious shortage of primary care physicians, and the deficit is growing. The population is aging — and getting sicker, with chronic disease ever more prevalent. Obamacare will bring 32 million uninsured people into the health system — and these newbies will need a lot of medical care. According to the American Association of Medical Colleges, the United States will be short some 45,000 primary care physicians by 2020.
The primary care physicians who do exist are badly distributed — 90 percent of internal medicine physicians, for example, work in urban areas. Some doctors go to work in rural areas or the poor parts of major cities, treating people who have Medicaid or no insurance. But they are few.
In part it’s the money. Primary care doctors make less than specialists anywhere, but they take an even larger financial hit to treat the poor. Particularly in the countryside — even with programs that offer partial loan forgiveness, it’s very hard to pay off medical school debt treating Medicaid patients, much less those with no insurance at all.
And the job of a primary care doctor today is largely managing chronic disease — coordinating the patient’s care with specialists, convincing him to exercise or eat better. Poor patients can be a frustrating struggle. Compared with wealthier patients, they tend to have more serious diseases and fewer resources for getting better. They are less educated, take worse care of themselves and have lower levels of compliance with doctors’ orders. Very few people start medical school hoping to do this kind of work. Those who do it may burn out quickly.
It might seem that offering the rural poor a clinic staffed only by nurses is to give them second-class primary care. It is not. The alternative for residents of Carroll County was not first-class primary care, but none. Before the clinic opened in 1996, the area had some family physicians, but very few accepted Medicaid or uninsured patients. When people got sick, they went to the emergency room. Or they waited it out — and then often landed in the emergency room anyway, now much sicker.
Just as important, while nurses take a different approach to patient care than doctors, it has proven just as effective. It might be particularly useful for treating chronic diseases, where so much depends on the patients’ behavioral choices.
Doctors are trained to focus on a disease — what is it? How do we make it go away?
Nurses are trained to think more holistically. The medical profession is trying to get doctors to ask about their patients’ lives, listen more, coach more and lecture less — being “patient-centered” is the term — in order to better understand what ails them.
“I’ve been out of nursing school since 1972 and I still remember that when faculty members finished talking about the scientific parts of the disease they would talk about the psycho-social part,” said Donna Torrisi, the executive director of the Family Practice and Counseling Network, which has three clinics in Philadelphia. “It’s not about the disease, it’s about the person who has the disease. While in the hospital you’ll often hear doctors refer to a patient as ‘the cardiac down the hall.’”
Younger doctors are no doubt better at this than their older peers. But the system conspires against them. The 15-minute appointment standard in fee-for-service medicine — which pays doctors according to how many patients they see and treatments they provide — makes it unlikely that doctors will spend time discussing a patient’s life in any detail. Physician reimbursement places a zero value on talking to the patient. But nurse practitioners are salaried, giving them the luxury of time. At the Family Health clinics, appointments last half an hour — an hour for a new diabetic or pregnant patient.
Jennifer Coddington, a pediatric nurse practitioner who is a co-clinical director of Family Health Clinics, said that she spends a lot of time teaching patients and their families about their diseases and how to manage it. “We want to know socially and economically what’s going on in their life — their educational level, how are they making it financially,” she said. “You can’t teach patients if you’re not at their educational level. And if a patient can’t afford something, what’s the point of trying to prescribe it? He’s going to be non-compliant.”
A physician might suggest that a patient lose weight and hand him a diet plan — or refer him to a nutritionist. At the Family Health clinics, nutrition counselors — graduate students at Purdue — will sit down with patients to talk about the specific consequence of their diet, and suggest good foods and how to cook them, Coddington said. “When you don’t have enough money to buy fruits and vegetables, so you go to the dollar menu at McDonald’s — we help those people put planners together for the week.”
Data has shown that nurse practitioners provide good health care. A review of 118 published studies over 18 years comparing health outcomes and patient satisfaction at doctor-led and nurse practioner-led clinics found the two groups to be equivalent on most outcomes. The nurses did better at controlling blood glucose and lipid levels, and on many aspects of birthing. There were no measures on which the nurses did worse.
Nurse-led clinics can save money — but not always in the obvious way. Many are cheaper than comparable physician-led clinics. Suzan Overholser, the business manager of the Family Health clinics, said that their cost per patient was $453 per year — lower than the Indiana average for similarly federally qualified clinics (all the others physician-led) of $549. But nurse-led clinics aren’t always cheaper. Coddington examined published studies of clinic costs and found that in some cases, nurse-managed clinics had slightly higher per-patient costs than traditional clinics.
Although nurses are paid less than doctors (Medicare reimburses them at 85 percent of what it pays doctors,) nurse-led clinics are often very small, and so don’t have the variety of practitioners necessary to keep a clinic running at full capacity. They also serve the most difficult and expensive patients.
The biggest financial benefit, however, likely comes from offering patients an alternative to the emergency room. Coddington’s review cites studies showing large savings in paramedic, police, emergency room and hospital use. A traditional clinic in an underserved area would do that, too, of course — it’s just that nurses tend to go where doctors won’t.
There are about 150,000 nurse practitioners in America today. The vast majority practice in traditional settings — only about a thousand are in nurse-managed clinics. One reason these clinics are rare is that they may equal traditional clinics in health care, but not in business success.
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Nurse-managed clinics have to overcome regulatory and financial obstacles that traditional clinics don’t face. Powerful physicians’ groups such as the American Academy of Family Physicians oppose allowing nurses to practice independently. “Granting independent practice to nurse practitioners would be creating two classes of care: one run by a physician-led team and one run by less-qualified health professionals,” says a paper from the A.A.F.P., citing the fact that doctors get more years of education and training. “Americans should not be forced into this two-tier scenario. Everyone deserves to be under the care of a doctor.”
Only 16 states and Washington, D.C., allow nurses complete independence. In other states, some of the restrictions are bizarre — in Indiana, for example, nurse practitioners may do everything doctors do, with two exceptions: they can’t prescribe physical therapy or do physicals for high school sports.
Jim Layman, the executive director of the Family Health clinics, said he thought that nurse practitioners cared for the majority of Medicaid patients in Indiana. But if you look through Medicaid records, you’ll find only doctors — nurses are not allowed to be the primary caregiver of record. So the Family Health clinics, like others, employ a physician off-site from 4 to 6 hours a week who uses electronic health records to examine a sample of cases and consult when necessary. Medicaid is billed in his name.
It is not easy for nurse-run clinics to win status as a Federally Qualified Community Health clinic, which would allow them to get federal grants. This is largely because most come out of universities, and most universities don’t want to cede control to the community — a requirement for this status. Purdue decided it would, and the Family Health clinics qualified in 2009. Before that, they received some money from the state, and raised the rest from local March of Dimes, United Way and Chamber of Commerce donations, plus fund-raising dinners and auctions. This was enough to support just one full-time provider at each clinic. Getting F.Q.C.H. status allowed them to hire more staff and move the Carroll County clinic into a modern new building — and probably saved them from collapse. “It would have been very difficult for us had we not gotten F.Q.C.H. status,” said Coddington. The Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — did authorize $50 million for five years for nurse-managed clinics. So far 10 clinics have gotten a total of $15 million.
In some ways, the nurse practitioner-managed clinic is a throwback to the small-town family practice, when your doctor asked about the schoolyard bully and your dad’s unemployment. Among the many changes needed in how America values and reimburses health care, it’s important to encourage and support these clinics. They may be old-fashioned, but that doesn’t mean they should be financed with bake sales.