Could Alternate Primary Health Care Centers Mitigate the Anticipated Physician Shortage?

New study reveals that models of care that rely on nurse practitioners or physician assistants could reduce the growing need for primary care physicians.

    • November 12, 2013

Princeton, N.J.—The aging baby boomer population and the roll out of the Affordable Care Act will dramatically increase the need for primary health care providers, and experts predict a significant physician shortage by 2025. A study in the November issue of Health Affairs finds that increasing the number of nurse-managed health centers and patient-centered medical homes could mitigate the projected physician shortage. Nurse-managed health centers and patient-centered medical homes rely less on physicians as primary care providers, and more on nurse practitioners (NPs) and physician assistants (PAs), respectively.

The research team, which was led by David Auerbach, MS, PhD, a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation, calculated how many physicians would be required to provide primary care in 2025 under various scenarios involving increased demand for those services, and that included expanding the number of patient-centered medical homes and nurse-managed health centers. The study is a part of the Future of Nursing National Research Agenda, a project of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and was co-funded by the Donaghue Foundation.

The researchers noted that while studies project an increase in the numbers of clinically active full-time-equivalent primary care physicians, NPs, and PAs, stronger growth is expected for the latter two providers. For instance, while there were four primary care physicians for every primary care NP in 2010, projections suggest that there will be just over two physicians per primary care NP in 2025.

Assuming no growth in medical homes or health centers, the research team projected a shortage of 45,000 primary care physicians in 2025 (putting supply 20 percent below demand), a surplus of 34,000 NPs (48 percent higher than demand), and a surplus of 4,000 PAs (10 percent higher than demand).

They found that medical homes and health centers tend to provide primary care services to the same population as traditional models, but with fewer physicians. Therefore, increasing the prevalence of medical homes from providing 15 percent of the nation’s primary care in 2010 to providing 45 percent in 2025 would reduce the primary care physician shortage by a quarter to 35,000. Increasing the prevalence of nurse-managed health centers from providing .5 percent of the nation’s primary care in 2010 to 5 percent in 2025 had roughly the same effect. Greater prevalence of both health care delivery models (about half of all primary care delivered in health centers and medical homes), would cut the physician shortage nearly in half. If medical homes are able to leverage their comprehensive approach to treat more patients, the shortage could be eliminated.

“We will likely not have enough primary care physicians to meet the growing need for health care services if primary care delivery models do not evolve,” said Auerbach. “We are also facing surpluses of both nurse practitioners and physician assistants assuming traditional delivery models. Our projections indicate that increasing the number of health care models that rely on these other practitioners would mitigate the physician shortage.”

The authors also note that increasing the number of nurse-managed health centers and patient-centered medical homes may require changing some state laws to allow NPs and PAs to play expanded roles in primary care. They point out that this will increase the need for medical assistants, licensed practical nurses and other providers who perform key functions in integrated care models. It may also require changing payment structures to reward providers for managing population health rather than a fee-for-service model.

RWJF created the Future of Nursing National Research Agenda in 2011 to support research that would inform implementation of the recommendations in the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) groundbreaking report The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health. The project is coordinated by RWJF’s Interdisciplinary Nursing Quality Research Initiative (INQRI). INQRI also supports interdisciplinary teams of nurse scholars and scholars from other disciplines to address the gaps in knowledge about the relationship between nursing and health care quality.

INQRI is helping to advance recommendations from the IOM report, which include fostering interprofessional collaboration and preparing and enabling nurses to lead change. By requiring research teams to include a nurse scholar and at least one scholar from another health care discipline, INQRI not only fosters interprofessional collaboration, it also ensures that diverse perspectives are brought to bear in research.

To learn more, visit www.inqri.org, or follow on Twitter at @INQRIProgram.

Read the study.

About the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to health and health care, the Foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, measurable, and timely change. For more than 40 years the Foundation has brought experience, commitment, and a rigorous, balanced approach to the problems that affect the health and health care of those it serves. When it comes to helping Americans lead healthier lives and get the care they need, the Foundation expects to make a difference in your lifetime. For more information, visit www.rwjf.org. Follow the Foundation on Twitter at www.rwjf.org/twitter or on Facebook at www.rwjf.org/facebook.

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