While at the Alabama Academy of Family Physicians meeting this weekend, the discussion turned (as it is in a lot of places) to health care reform, the climate in Alabama, and whether primary care can survive the next 10 years in Alabama. As I have chronicled the environment for Family Physicians in private practice is not very favorable and Medicaid in Alabama is inherently unstable. To give ourselves yet something else to worry about that we can’t control, the conversation around the table moved the suspicion that the major payors (Blur Cross and Medicaid) are attempting to transform the care delivery system by dropping the reimbursement so low that non-physician providers will be the only ones who can afford to provide primary care services.

This concern has been around at least since the HMO “revolution”. The New York Times ran an article detailing the demise of the primary care physician and the rise of non-physician primary care in 1997. On the service, it is an appealing concept. Advanced practice nurses take less time to train (5 years with undergrad counting) than physicians (7 years post-baccalaureate). To the untrained eye as well as to the partialist physician, what I do seems “so easy a caveman could do it” so why should we waste physician resources on primary care? Lastly, patient satisfaction is always higher for visits to advanced practice nurses when reported than it is to physicians.

 So why am I not unemployed? As my friend Bob Bowman has posted, Family Medicine Advanced Practice Nurses spend only 3.5 years in primary care before moving onto something else. They will constitute at best only 12% of the primary care workforce. Expansion of training to take advantage of the more rapid training cycle without fundamental change in the delivery system will result in more Advanced Practice Nurses but no more in primary care practices. It is true that Advanced Practice Nurses are likely to practice in rural areas when they go into primary care and this must be captured and expanded upon.

It is true that if 30,000,000 folks who do not currently have access are given access, there will be a signficant unmet need for primary care. As Lori Heim, the president of the American Academy of Family Physicians stated, our  common goal of improving access should dictate the relationship between physicians and Advanced Practice Nurses. I suspect there is enough business in the new model of healthcare for both groups.

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