Education Gaps between Family Physicians and Licensed Nurse Practitioners

From the Association of Family Medicine Residency Directors
Annals of Family Medicine, May/June 2012

As millions of Americans gain coverage for medical care in the coming years and as the need for primary care in patient-centered medical home (PCMH) models increases, our medical homes will need to provide more access to care. One such method is through advanced physician extenders which include physician assistants and nurse practitioners. Many entities are talking about allowing Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioners (ARNPs) work more independently without physician involvement. However, the vast difference in clinical training between family physicians and ARNPs is significant. Also, an effective provider in a PCMH is expected to manage without consultation a broad spectrum of disease. Therefore, practices without physician counterparts could lead to a tier of primary care that is limited in its effectiveness. ARNPs are a tremendous asset in providing some primary care services, ideally partnered with physicians in group settings, but have significant limitations when independently evaluating and managing undifferentiated patients due to the superficial coverage of medical topics during their training. The skill sets are complementary to each other, but not equal.

ARNP schools exhibit a wide variation of training standards from school to school and from state to state. There is no national accreditation body like the Accreditation Counsel for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) that monitors advanced nursing profession schools or creates national standards for clinical experiences. Without a similar structure to the ACGME, it is impossible to assess the quality of the education across these various schools.

The diagnostic challenges primary care physicians face on a daily basis require they have extensive clinical exposure in order to perform efficiently. The depth of knowledge required to filter undifferentiated patients’ complaints and to understand the subtleties of management is vast. The average family medicine physician has 21,000 total hours of training, most of it with clear patient management responsibilities and decreasing levels of supervision. The total hours of training a nurse practitioner receives is 2,300 to 5,300 hours depending on the advanced nursing program, and much of the clinical training is observational. Many states only require a 30-day observation period of a licensed active physician before an ARNP can deliver care unsupervised. Grandfathering people into independent practice would be like grandfathering a family physician into a subspecialty after doing a month of observation in that specialty.

In the end, to practice independently, one should be judged by those who have the experience and background to make that assessment. Family physicians are the experts of primary care in this country and our understanding of what it takes to practice competently and independently is quite thorough. Family physician faculty that teach residents are skilled at making such assessments.

We believe there are excellent roles for physician extenders who work in collaborative settings with physicians, enabling more independence for the physician extenders. The medical team in the PCMH has key roles for Physician Assistants and ARNPs within its structure. Just as physicians gain greater skill with experience, these practitioners will gain great skill in many aspects of primary care as their experience develops over time. However, the underlying knowledge base and formative clinical experience cannot be shortcut. Not knowing what one doesn’t know can be dangerous to the public. On the physician side, we would never allow a 2nd- or 3rd-year medical student (who would have the equivalent amount of training as an ARNP), to evaluate and manage patients independently. Though states may pass laws that allow other providers with less training to practice independently, it doesn’t change the reality that without competent physician supervision, we are lowering the standard of acceptable primary care and creating a 2-tiered system of access for our community.

Todd Shaffer, MD, MBA, Michael Tuggy, MD, Stoney Abercrombie, MD, Sneha Chacko, MD, Joseph Gravel, MD, Karen Hall, MD, Grant Hoekzema, MD, Lisa Maxwell, MD, Michael Mazzone, MD and Martin Wieschhaus, MD


Broadening the Scope of Nursing Practice

By Julie A. Fairman, Ph.D., R.N., John W. Rowe, M.D., Susan Hassmiller, Ph.D., R.N., and Donna E. Shalala, Ph.D.
The New England Journal of Medicine, January 20, 2011

The critical factors limiting nurse practitioners’ capacity to practice to the full extent of their education, training, and competence are state-based regulatory barriers. States vary in terms of what they allow nurse practitioners to do, and this variance appears not to be correlated with performance on any measure of quality or safety. There are no data to suggest that nurse practitioners in states that impose greater restrictions on their practice provide safer and better care than those in less restrictive states or that the role of physicians in less restrictive states has changed or deteriorated.

Sixteen states plus the District of Columbia have already liberalized and standardized their scope-of-practice regulations and allow nurse practitioners to practice and prescribe independently.

This is a critical time to support an expanded, standardized scope of practice for nurses. Economic forces, demographics, the gap between supply and demand, and the promised expansion of care necessitate changes in primary care delivery. A growing shortage of primary care providers seems to ensure that nurses will ultimately be required to practice to their fullest capacity. Fighting the expansion of nurse practitioners’ scope of practice is no longer a defensible strategy. The challenge will be for all health care professionals to embrace these changes and come together to improve U.S. health care.

Is there a difference between a nurse and a physician? More specifically, can advanced registered nurse practitioners replace family physicians in the independent practice of medicine? Or should they?

These are important questions. There is an urgent need to reinforce our primary care infrastructure. Should we do this by continuing to expand medical homes by including nurse practitioners as parts of teams led by primary care physicians? Or should we encourage the independent practice of nurse practitioners in competition with physician practices?

Since there is a shortage of family physicians, it seems that the proper solution would be to train more family physicians. Is it really logical to convert another category of health care professionals – nursing – into independent physicians?

Advanced nurse practitioners have much to contribute to the team comprising the medical home. But would it be proper for medical homes to be led by nurses while excluding physicians?

It’s really all about the patient. Medical teams should be designed foremost to serve the patient. It seems like there should be a physician in there somewhere.