Nurse practitioners (NPs) and physician assistants (PAs) play key roles in expanding access to primary care,1,2 but their involvement in specialty care is not well described. Given concerns about the limited supply of specialist physicians,3 increasing incorporation of NPs and PAs into collaborative specialist practices could be a strategy for improving access. Prior studies described the frequency of NPs and PAs practicing in specialty practices,4,5 and quantified the volume of care by NPs and PAs for surgical outpatients.6 However, to our knowledge, no study has described trends in specialist physician visits in which NPs and PAs provide care. We hypothesized that NPs and PAs increasingly are providing care to specialist physicians’ patients, and that this growth is primarily for routine follow-up.
Administered by the National Center for Health Statistics, the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NAMCS) samples office visits with physicians to create nationally representative estimates of outpatient care (n = 473 132 visits from 2001 to 2013). We identified visits to specialist physicians and divided these into surgical and medical specialist physicians. We first examined unadjusted trends from 2001 to 2013 in the percentage of visits with NP or PA involvement (ie, an NP or PA saw the patient with a physician or an NP or PA saw the patient without a physician), using multiyear intervals owing to sample size. We then examined visit characteristics associated with higher likelihood of NP or PA involvement in recent years (2010-2013), using a logistic regression model controlling for all listed visit and patient characteristics (Table) to generate adjusted percentages. The University of Pittsburgh Human Research Protection Office judged this study exempt from review.
Among visits to surgical and medical specialist physicians, the proportion involving an NP or PA increased from 3.3% in 2001 to 2003 to 6.9% in 2010 to 2013 (P = .001) and 2.4% to 5.8% (P < .001), respectively (Figure, A). Similar growth in NP or PA visits was observed for new and return visits (Figure, B) and for all visit reasons (ie, acute problem, routine chronic, perioperative) (Figure, C). Among visits with NPs or PAs, the proportion of visits where the patient did not also see a physician increased from 12.3% to 21.4% (P = .004).
Adjusting for other visit and patient factors, the proportion of 2010-2013 visits involving an NP or PA varied significantly by visit reason (4.9% of routine chronic visits vs 9.3% of presurgical and postsurgical visits; P = .004 for category), patient comorbidity (10.6% of visits among patients with ≥4 chronic conditions vs 5.6% with no chronic conditions; P = .001 for category), and region (4% of visits in the Midwest vs 9.6% in the Northeast; P < .001 for category) (Table). The adjusted proportion of 2010-2013 visits involving an NP or PA ranged from 4.0% to 8.5% across specific specialties identified in the Table (P = .86).
Involvement of NPs and PAs in the care of patients of specialist physicians increased over the past decade, but growth slowed in recent years, and visits involving NPs or PAs remain a small proportion of overall specialty visits. Contrary to our hypothesis, growth was observed in unadjusted analysis not only for return and routine visits, but also for new patients and acute visits. Rates of NPs or PAs seeing patients without a physician also seeing the patient increased. In adjusted analysis, NPs or PAs were disproportionately involved in care of patients with greater medical complexity, requiring further work to understand if this reflects team-based care, coding artifact, or other explanations. These findings are particularly notable given that NPs and PAs in specialty care receive shorter formal training than specialist physicians, with specialty-specific training entirely on-the-job in some fields.
Our study is limited in that NAMCS samples visits to nonfederal office-based physicians and reflects only care that occurs among NPs and PAs sharing rosters with physicians. As such, our results may underestimate total involvement of NPs and PAs in specialty care but should accurately reflect trends in NPs and PAs providing care in conjunction with specialist physicians. Our findings have implications for the specialty workforce, and the impact on access to specialty care and its quality should be evaluated.
Corresponding Author: Kristin Ray, MD, Department of Pediatrics, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, 3414 Fifth St, Third Floor, Pittsburgh, PA 15213 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Accepted for Publication: March 22, 2017.
Published Online: June 5, 2017. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2017.1630
Author Contributions: Drs Ray and Barnett had full access to all the data in the study and take responsibility for the integrity and the accuracy of the data analysis.
Study concept and design: Ray, Mehrotra, Barnett.
Acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data: Ray, Martsolf, Barnett.
Drafting of the manuscript: Ray, Barnett.
Critical revision of the manuscript for important intellectual content: All authors.
Statistical analysis: Ray, Barnett.
Study supervision: Martsolf, Mehrotra, Barnett.
Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.
Funding/Support: This study was supported in part by a grant to Dr Ray from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (K12HS022989).
Role of the Funder/Sponsor: The funding source had no role in the design and conduct of the study; collection, management, analysis, and interpretation of the data; preparation, review, or approval of the manuscript; and decision to submit the manuscript for publication.
Disclaimer: The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the funders.
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