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Nurse Practitioners are not Doctors, They’re Better

New study shows high quality in nurse practitioners’ care of complex patients.

In an era of physician shortages and insurance expansion, the American health system is struggling to keep pace with increasing demand from patients. Although the last decade has produced some growth in the number of American medical schools, residency programs haven’t kept pace. In addition, the aging of the Baby Boomer generation will bring a “silver tsunami”of patients into the healthcare system. The culmination of these factors has led to massive additions in advanced practice providers (APPs): physician’s assistants and nurse practitioners.

Source: Oskar Annermarken (Flickr/CC)

Source: Oskar Annermarken (Flickr/CC)

as they would with any other system reform. Numerous studies of APPs have been performed in the past to examine quality and costs. However, a common criticism of these studies is that they aren’t apples to apples comparisons between physicians and APPs. Typically, the argument states that physicians see sicker, more complicated patients while nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants see younger, healthier patients.

A recent study in the journal Medical Care sought to address this critique. Utilizing retrospective nationwide data from CMS’ Chronic Disease Data Warehouse, the researchers compared the health outcomes for elderly, diabetic patients who received care from only nurse practitioners vs. only physicians. Specifically, the study examined rates of potentially avoidable hospitalizations.

The average patient age was 77 years old with diabetes and 2 additional co-morbidities. Patients who solely received care by a nurse practitioner had decreased risk of avoidable hospitalization compared to patients who saw only physicians (OR 0.9; 95% CI 0.87-0.93). Overall mortality for both groups was similar.

As with any retrospective study, differentiating between correlation and causation can be difficult. To address this, the authors performed several additional analyses utilizing advanced statistics to examine for potential confounding factors. Even when controlling for factors such as age, burden of comorbidity, Medicaid eligibility, and others, the authors found similar results.

Although encouraging, these findings will by no means end the ongoing debate on the role of APPs in today’s health system. Debates on autonomy, training, and scope of practice are likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Still, these results are promising in the realm of patient safety. should further examine this issue in other settings and patient populations.

commentary by Kyle Fischer


Background: Few comparisons exist of the quality of primary care provided by nurse practitioners (NPs) versus physicians.

Methods: Patients with a diagnosis of diabetes in 2007–2010 (n=345,819) who received all primary care from NPs or from generalist physicians in a given year were selected from a national sample of Medicare beneficiaries. We compared the rate of potentially preventable hospitalizations among patients who received primary care from NPs versus generalist physicians. Various statistical methods—including multivariable analysis, inverse probability weighting of propensity score, nonpooling propensity score adjustment and matching, and instrumental variable (IV) analysis—were used to control for differences in patient characteristics between the 2 groups.

Results: Patients who received all of their primary care from NPs or from physicians differed by age, sex, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, residential area, and number of provider visits in the previous year. Nonpooling propensity score matching substantially reduced the differences, but neither IV approach satisfactorily reduced the differences. In multivariable analyses, receipt of primary care from an NP was associated with a decreased risk of hospitalization for potentially preventable conditions (OR: 0.90; 95% CI, 0.87–0.93). Similar results were found using conditional logistic regression models with propensity methods. We found smaller reductions in our analyses of “other hospitalizations” (OR: 0.96; 95% CI, 0.95–0.98). Both IV analyses showed associations between NP care and lower potentially preventable hospitalizations, but only 1 result was statistically significant.

Conclusions: Using potentially preventable hospitalizations as a quality indicator, primary care provided by NPs was at least comparable with that provided by generalist physicians.

Kuo YF, et al. Med Care. 2015; 53 (9): 776-83. PMID: 26270826 

Kyle Fischer, MD, MPH
About Kyle Fischer, MD, MPH

Kyle Fischer is a practicing emergency physician in Maryland. He received a combined MD/MPH from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and subsequently completed an emergency medicine residency at Drexel University. Dr. Fischer possesses legislative health policy experience in both the Wisconsin and Maryland state legislatures and the United States House of Representatives. Broadly, his interests lie in health system and payment reform, integration of public health measures into emergency care as well as targeted interventions of high-risk populations, particularly victims of violent injury. Of note, he participates as the policy liaison for the National Network of Hospital-Based Violence Intervention Programs. He is currently a health policy fellow in the University of Maryland Department of Emergency Medicine and tweets at @KBFischer. Contact: Website | Facebook | Twitter | Google+ | More Posts