The Dean’s Blog

NPs, Expanded Scope and the Need for Team-Based Health Care

David Vlahov

My most recent blog post – which commented on an Academic Medicine article titled “Primary Care Workforce Shortages and Career Recommendations from Practicing Clinicians” – touched a nerve with some readers. People have responded in a number of ways. Some felt that the blog was “out of touch” and “tone deaf” to the issues of concern for primary care nurse practitioners (PCNPs), in essence abandoning our shared commitment to the preparation, profession and position of nurse practitioners.

Nothing could be further from the truth! To be clear, in my earlier blog posts (e.g., “Reducing the Impact of the Doctor Shortage in a Year,” from July 2014), published articles (e.g., “Nurse Practitioners: Implementing the Affordable Care Act,” in San Francisco Medicine, April 2013) and numerous national presentations, I have consistently made the case for PCNPs being able to practice to the full extent of their education and license. The recent blog post is most definitely not a departure from that position.

The Institute of Medicine’s 2010 report on The Future of Nursing framed the future in the context of health care reform. In essence, the country needs a larger, stronger and more integrated health care workforce to meet the nation’s health care needs. To meet the real and growing challenge of providing quality care, the IOM stressed the development of educational standards for practice; the education of doctorally prepared nurses for leadership, education and research; and the need to address the scope of practice whereby nurses can fully practice to the level of their education.

In California, we have had some disappointment in making progress toward these goals. In 2013, Senate Bill 491, which would have allowed nurse practitioners to operate without physician supervision at certain medical facilities, did not pass. Among others, I was asked to and did provide research in support of independent practice. In addition to summarizing the research base that has found nurse practitioners provide high-quality and safe care, with outcomes and patient satisfaction comparable to primary care physicians, I also presented the case that it is much more cost-effective to train nurse practitioners and that they graduate with much lower debt compared to physicians. I argued for the importance of having expanded practice restrictions eased as a means to expand the health care workforce to meet the increasing needs associated with health care reform. The early version of this bill was discussed with the deans of all the UC schools of nursing, who similarly expressed support. Additionally, a letter in support of the bill came from the University of California, Office of the President.

There can be no doubt of where I stand on the issue of independent practice for nurse practitioners. And we will continue to fight for this becoming a reality in California as it already has in some states. Hopefully, the 2013 bill will be reintroduced and will pass in the next legislative session.

All of that said, a larger workforce – even one enhanced by making full use of NPs’ unique skill set – is not enough. Coordinated, team-based care is health care’s future. Thus, we need to do better in terms of training together, working together and supporting each other. Listening to and understanding the views and concerns of our professional colleagues moves us closer to these important goals.

David Vlahov
RN, PhD, FAAN

 

In Support of Primary Care Medicine

David Vlahov

Recently, an article in Academic Medicine described the results of a survey that found 66 percent of primary care physicians (PCPs) would recommend becoming a primary care nurse practitioner (PCNP) as a career choice, whereas only 56 percent of PCPs would recommend a career in their own profession. Conversely, 88 percent of primary care nurse practitioners would recommend their own career.

As one of many nurses who have argued long and loud that the challenges of health care reform demand that we expand the scope of practice for nurse practitioners, I might be expected to take some pleasure in such findings.

I do not; I find the survey results dispiriting. A shrinking pool of primary care physicians is unequivocal bad news for anyone who cares about creating a truly responsive and high-quality system of care.

Consider one key passage of the article:

It is possible that Primary Care Physicians’ greater willingness to recommend a career as a PCNP over a career in their own profession could reflect their pessimism about the future of primary care medicine. Dissatisfaction with factors not assessed in this survey – lower payments and incomes relative to specialists, long work hours, increasing bureaucracy and compliance oversight, devaluation of primary care among the academic medical community, the additional years of education, and high debt levels following the completion of medical education, particularly in relation to their salary as compared with physicians in other specialties – could weigh heavily enough to offset PCPs’ misgivings about PCNPs and thus explain their greater willingness to recommend that qualified students pursue careers as PCNPs.

If the authors’ speculations about the sources of primary care dissatisfaction are correct – and such thoughts are nothing new for those of us who count primary care physicians as friends and colleagues – then it is time for all of us to find ways to turn this train around. A strong primary care physician workforce is a non-negotiable necessity for quality care.

Therefore, we must build new incentives for primary care medicine into the evolving designs for health care delivery and academic medicine. We must work together with our primary care physician colleagues to create and sustain the conditions necessary to maintain and expand their vital practice. Even as PCNPs have sought a wider scope for their own practice, it has always been in the context of adding value to an essential partnership with primary care physicians and other health professionals to enhance health and well-being for all individuals.

To be clear: becoming a PCNP is a great career choice. Yet PCNPs do not exist to replace primary care physicians. We are not interchangeable. There may be overlap in our roles, but there is also important differentiation where each provides additive value to health care delivery and the health of our patients.

If nursing is dedicated to creating and being part of a comprehensive health system that meets the needs of disease prevention, management and health promotion, then we must advocate for a strong primary care physician workforce that feels truly energized about bringing its expertise and innovation to our shared mission.

Thoughts on World AIDS Day

David Vlahov

World AIDS Day (Dec. 1) is an opportunity to renew our commitment to creating a generation without this dreaded disease. This year’s theme – Focus, Partner, Achieve: An AIDS-Free Generation – is a perfect rallying cry for a fight that, unfortunately, is not yet over. Just this week, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study which found that more than 1 million Americans have HIV, nearly 50,000 more become infected every year, and in 2011, fewer than 3 in 10 had the disease under control.

So a renewed commitment is essential – and some of us find the strength for that commitment in the inspiration of heroes. With HIV/AIDS there is no shortage of such heroes, from patients and families to researchers, clinicians, advocacy groups and policymakers.

Inevitably, though, I think of my nursing colleagues. In the early 1980s, when the disease first emerged as a virulent and mysterious killer and I saw my first patient with HIV/AIDS – when we didn’t know how to ease the suffering, and the stigma associated with this “gay disease” was more cruelly overt than it is today – nurses often took center stage.

No place was this more true than in San Francisco. In 1983, the San Francisco Department of Public Health and UCSF created the first outpatient clinic devoted to caring for people with AIDS and, led by Cliff Morrison – a nurse and clinical faculty member at UCSF School of Nursing – the first inpatient AIDS unit in the nation at San Francisco General Hospital.

Absent any known treatment or cures, Morrison and his colleagues focused on relieving the physical and emotional suffering of early AIDS patients. Symptom management – a major clinical responsibility for nurses in any setting and a major pursuit of nurse scientists – was crucial.

Morrison and his team also understood that easing suffering meant helping patients overcome the stigma of HIV/AIDS. Their early realization led to research by nurse scientists and others that has leant understanding to stigma’s role in all disease.

Community health nurses and researchers were among the first to understand that AIDS affected other communities, such as injection drug users and sex workers. Developing community health interventions was an important factor in stemming the epidemic.

As discoveries emerged, nurse educators at UCSF and other schools adapted our curricula, developing patient education techniques that helped individuals and communities reduce the risks of contracting HIV and helped patients adhere to treatment regimens. Over the years, nurse educators here have helped create a virtual army of HIV/AIDS-trained practitioners for the Bay Area and the world.

That’s important, because as HIV/AIDS has become more chronic illness than death sentence, nurses often are the clinical leads with patients. We work with physician colleagues to develop realistic treatment plans tailored to the context of our patients’ entire lives. We point patients to community resources and help them understand it is possible to live full and rewarding lives while managing the illness.

So, today, as the HIV/AIDS community renews its commitment to this fight, I feel enormous pride in my profession. We are only one among many groups whose heroic efforts inspire us today, but our work demonstrates the very best in nursing and health care – not just the compassion and kindness with which we are often associated, but our complex and essential role in many aspects and on many levels of patient care.

Still, there is much left to do. Let’s draw our strength for the continued fight from our heroes. 

If You Had $100 Million for Global Health

David Vlahov

Recently, I participated in a well-attended panel discussion on the challenge of global population growth, sponsored by a consortium of academic global health programs in the San Francisco Bay Area. The discussion ranged from the pressing problems of inadequate and diminishing access to water and food to the megatrend of unremitting urbanization and the need to shift development dollars to where people are and will be.

As the session moved to audience questions, one participant asked, “If you had $100 million and were not allowed to divide it between priorities, how would you spend it?”

A hundred million dollars may seem like a large sum of money, yet it really is not when you consider the range and size of needs in global health; in 2012, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that global spending on health exceeded $6 trillion annually. Thus, considering what the top priority should be if we had only $100 million to spend is an important exercise in triage because, sad to say, resources will always have limits.

Certainly, the possibilities are overwhelming. Some point to the need for research and development of vaccines and enhancing the availability of existing medications and treatments. Others focus on social determinants of health, which include water, sanitation and transportation infrastructure; or on the promise of shared governance, such as expanding the Latin American model of participatory budgeting, which has led to improvements in infant mortality and life expectancy. Still others propose investing more in the WHO’s urban health observatory, which carefully monitors populations and evaluates programs and policies in areas where most people live around the world; this could be extended to more countries where city growth is rapid, especially in the slums. 

Another area with the potential for a large return on investment is primary education that consciously includes women. The case for this is especially strong in low- and middle-income countries, because education builds human capital, and the inclusion of women enables countries to mobilize the entirety of their human resources.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, though, that I would argue another important direction for progress in global health is investing in the education of nurses. Doing so complements existing structures and resources such as medical schools and tertiary care hospitals for specialty care. Expanding the nursing workforce in community and public health supports essential population health initiatives in prevention, surveillance, primary care delivery and referral. More nursing education also is the fastest way to bring skilled health care workers to the front lines of all forms of health promotion, primary care and midwifery. And more nurses creates a larger workforce of community-level clinicians and leadership-trained community health workers, thus raising the collective knowledge of health and increasing the presence of quality health services for a greater proportion of any country’s population. That would be a pretty good return on a $100 million investment.

Nursing at the Front Lines of Ebola – and Beyond

David Vlahov

This month we learned about yet another case of Ebola in the US, where a second Dallas nurse became infected after treating a patient who flew here from Liberia.

We can only imagine what these infected nurses are experiencing. Our thoughts and prayers go out to them and to the others infected in the US, Europe and West Africa. We feel the caution, anxiety and fear of the nurses and other workers who are at the front lines. From a distance we sense the rising level of alarm. Yet as a profession, as colleagues in arms, we can take steps to address this threat.

The first is to put the threat into proper perspective and to not mince words: Ebola is a very dangerous virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the US Department of Agriculture classify possible infectious agents into levels of threat. Those agents in the highest level (Category A) can result in high mortality rates, might cause public panic and social disruption and require special action for public health preparedness. Category A includes viral hemorrhagic fevers, one of which is the Ebola virus. Given its high rate of mortality (around 50 percent; mortality rates of past outbreaks have varied from 25 percent to 90 percent), it is handled only in the most secure, Biosafety Level-4 laboratory settings. (A note: While the categorization framework was developed for planning around bioterrorism, there is no suggestion or hint of that here. What we are witnessing is an outbreak turned into an epidemic, with the potential to spread through global travel.)

With no vaccine yet and treatment limited to supportive care, step two involves health care workers making sure we can protect ourselves, so we can not just help contain the epidemic, but also address the accompanying public panic and social disruption. Guidelines for prevention are available at http://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/hcp/infection-prevention-and-control-recommendations.html.

Next, as nurses, we have a role that begins with professional screening, identification and care of the individual patient, family and co-workers, but we must go beyond that. We have a crucial role in educating the communities where we live and the wider community throughout the country and the world. Preventing public panic and minimizing social disruption depends on individuals and communities having information and a sense of support, rather than stigmatization. This will be especially important as the fever and headaches of flu season kick into gear, and as people interact with friends, neighbors and family members who have come from overseas – even those who arrived here long ago. Even as I write this morning, there was a report of a community college in Texas that refused to admit a student from Nigeria.

The first law of epidemics is that whatever goes up must come down. We can make the number of cases and the anxiety surrounding them come down faster if we stick to our training and work together. By conducting objective assessments, making appropriate referrals, providing care with appropriate precautions, and calming others even in the worst of circumstances – this will be yet another time when nursing will be absolutely central to an effective public health response.

Comments

The couple of cases in Dallas are hardly the "front lines" of Ebola. Of course it's difficult to imagine what infected US nurses might be feeling, but how about we consider what the nations of West Africa might be feeling, given the 8000 cases and 4000 deaths?
I think it would be a good idea to institute a standard for video surveillance over the staff donning and doffing areas in the care of ebola patients. This could help to identify any untoward exposure that even the buddy system might miss and also be valuable in making any needed changes. Laura McIntosh, MS, RN (UCSF Alumni)
I believe the best way to prepare for this outbreak is to treat it as we do our isolation cases- TB etc . We are required to have yearly FIT testing to make sure we have the necessary equipment and demonstrate how to use it. The CDC is our experts and we need to take their advice on preparing a packet of necessary PPE that is ready and available in adequate numbers. Each and every employee needs to don/doff this equipment to be familiar with its handling. Several days ago, we had a drill for ICU/ ER to work through how they would handle the Ebola patient who walked in our door. Sonia Smith. RN ANP UCSF alumni. Berkeley.
Thank you! You could not have provided a more realistic approach for nurses to put this disease into perspective. I fear we are ignoring our much larger enemy of Influenza that seems to be ignored due to all of the national attention Ebola has created.
With Ebola starting with flu-like symptoms, influenza immunization may improve specificity for detection; yet another reason for getting immunized.

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