Last month I attended the NPACE conference in Nashville. The keynote presentation delivered by nurse practitioner Dr. Ken Miller, Nurse Practitioners: 192,000 Solutions to Healthcare Reform, didn’t spark my interest when I initially registered for the conference. I figured that as one who stays pretty up to date with legislative issues affecting NPs he wouldn’t have much new information to share. But, of course, I was wrong.
Dr. Miller said something during his presentation that I really took to heart. “We are approaching questions of nurse practitioner independent practice all wrong”, he asserted, “there isn’t a single healthcare provider who practices independently”. Dr. Miller’s statement really stuck with me.
In reality, no medical provider works on their own. No matter the size of the practice, the confidence of the provider, or the level of prestige, we all rely on each other. Emergency department NPs and MD’s alike refer complex facial wounds to plastic surgeons, family practice physicians and physician assistants refer uncontrolled diabetics who they feel uncomfortable managing to endocrinology practices. The web of relationships among healthcare providers extends not only to those with the ability to diagnose, treat, and prescribe, but really to all levels of the healthcare system.
Working as a nurse practitioner in the emergency department, I would be nowhere without my RN colleagues. Their speed and skill in placing IV’s, putting in foley catheters, transporting patients to the ICU, and alerting me to patient care decisions that need to be prioritized is essential to my ability to perform my job. Without a physician present, I would be lost when it comes to the most complex cases that make their way into the ER. Even now that I can deal with many of these on my own, I was taught by an MD. The phlebotomists with whom I work draw blood and deliver it to the lab with unmatched efficiency allowing me to get results and therefore make clinical decisions as quickly as possible.
Healthcare’s hierarchy can be frustrating. Using language like “independence” when arguing that we should be allowed to practice to the full extent of our abilities makes it seem that we want to be removed from the system completely. But, we don’t. As nurse practitioners we are arguing to practice to the full scope of our abilities. This includes the ability to determine if a physician or another healthcare provider must be involved in the care of and decision making process for our patients. We aren’t arguing that we know how to do it all, that we never need to refer to another provider, will not ever involve physicians in the care of our patients, or that we are equip to go solo. No, the nurse practitioner independence movement is looking simply for the freedom to decide when this involvement is necessary and when we can handle things on our own. The word “independence” doesn’t convey this sentiment accurately.
So often, supervision and collaboration agreements required by state governments are simply pieces of paper. Their removal wouldn’t affect the day to day care nurse practitioners offer to patients. We aren’t involving our collaborating physicians in many cases, anyway. The removal of this requirement wouldn’t affect the way medical care is provided but rather remove barriers to providing more care to a greater number of Americans and decrease the health costs caused by this bureaucracy.
I’m not usually one to focus on the minutiae, or to focus on choosing my verbiage carefully (maybe I should start….). But, when referring to nurse practitioner scope of practice laws I’m planning to ditch the word independence. I think Dr. Miller is right- we are approaching this argument all wrong. Independence isn’t actually what we want. We want to remain interdependent, just like all other healthcare providers. What we really want is the legal recognition required to practice to our full ability. This includes the ability to recognize when a medical situation’s complexities are beyond our training and warrant the involvement of another provider.
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