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Finding new health care providers will be difficult, crucial task

Within the next two years, if federal healthcare reforms proceed as expected, roughly 30 million of the estimated 50 million uninsured people in the United States — 6.9 million in California — will be trying to find new healthcare providers.

It won’t be easy. Primary care providers are already in short supply, both in California and nationwide. That’s because doctors are increasingly leaving primary care for other types of practices, including higher paid specialties. As the demand increases, the squeeze on providers will worsen, leading to potentially lower standards of care in general and longer wait times for appointments for many of the rest of us.

Nurse practitioners can help fill this gap. We are registerednurses with graduate school education and training to provide a wide range of both preventive and acute healthcare services. We’re trained to provide complete physical exams, diagnose many problems, interpret lab results and X-rays, and prescribe and manage medications. In other words, we’re fully prepared to provide excellent primary care. Moreover, there are plenty of us waiting to do just that.

The most recent federal government statistics show there were nearly 160,000 of us in 2008, an increase of 12% over 2004, and our numbers continue to rise.

Clinics like the one I direct in the heart of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district — GLIDE Health Services — offer a hopeful glimpse into California’s healthcare future. We are a federally funded, affordable clinic, run almost entirely by nurse practitioners. At our clinic, we nurses and talented specialists provide high-quality, comprehensive primary care to more than 3,200 patients each year.

Despite the special hardships of our clientele, who daily cope with the negative effects on health caused by poverty, unemployment and substance abuse, our results routinely compare favorably with those of mainstream physicians. Our patients with diabetes, for example, report regularly for checkups, take their meds as directed and maintain relatively low average blood-sugar levels.

This high standard of care provided by nurse practitioners has been confirmed in several studies, including a 2009 Rand Corp. report, which found that “nurse practitioners provide care of equivalent quality to physicians at a lower cost, while achieving high levels of patient satisfaction and providing more disease prevention counseling, health education and health promotion activities than physicians.”

At last count, there were more than 250 nurse-run clinics nationwide similar to GLIDE Health Services. We and about 20 others are funded by a special federal program for affordable care. In all of these projects, nurse practitioners offer both primary and preventive care, including mental health services and screening for HIV and diabetes.

Researchers have confirmed that such clinics not only improve local health but also save taxpayers money. Nurse practitioners’ salaries are generally lower than those of physicians. At the same time, the comprehensive care we provide can significantly reduce the costly emergency room visits used by all too many low-income Americans as their default healthcare.

Unfortunately, some major obstacles stand in the way of expanding our money-saving model. One big hurdle is the reluctance of leading private health plans to contract with nurse practitioners as primary care providers. Even as Medicare, Medi-Cal and pioneering local programs for the uninsured, such as “Healthy San Francisco,” now contract with nurse practitioners to provide such care, a 2009 study by the National Nursing Centers Consortium found that nearly half of the country’s major managed care organizations don’t.

Some of the holdout companies require nurses to bill for their services under a physician’s supervision. California’s insurance code only requires insurance companies to contract with nurse practitioners for primary care when it involves Medicare or Medi-Cal. If the code were expanded to include all coverage, access in the state would be greatly improved. There is room for reform on these fronts and others, and we should get started now to enact change.

In October 2010, the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, issued a landmark report called “The Future of Nursing,” in which it urged that nurses be “full partners, with physicians and other health care professionals, in redesigning health care in the United States.” At clinics such as GLIDE Health Services, we’re showing that we’re more than ready to answer this challenge, and take our places on the front lines of healthcare reform in America.

Ed’s Note: Patricia Dennehy is the director of GLIDE Health Services in San Francisco and a professor at the UC San Francisco School of Nursing. On Feb. 13, she received The James Irvine Leadership Award, which provides $125,000 to Californians breaking through on significant state issues.


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