Background and growth
Hospitalist nurse practitioner (NP) and physician assistant (PA) providers have been a growing and evolving part of the inpatient medical workforce, seemingly since the inception of hospital medicine. Given the growth of these disciplines within hospital medicine, at this juncture it is helpful to look at this journey, to see what roles these providers have been serving, and to consider newer and novel trends in how NPs and PAs are being weaved into hospital medicine programs.
The drivers for growth in this provider population are not unlike those of physician hospitalists. The same milieu that provided inroads for physicians in hospital-based care have led the way for increased use of NP/PA providers. An aging physician workforce, residency work hour reforms, increasing complexity of patients and systems on the inpatient side, and the recognition that caring for inpatients is a specialty vastly different from the role of internist in primary care have all impacted the numbers of NPs and PAs in this arena.
A quick review of older articles and publications gives a very interesting and wry snapshot of the utilization of NP/PA providers in hospital medicine in past years. The titles alone provide for a chuckle or two:
• 2007 Today’s Hospitalist article: “Midlevels make a rocky entrance into hospital medicine”1
• 2009 ACP Hospitalist article: “When hiring midlevels, proceed with caution”2
These titles reflect the uncertainty at the time in how best to utilize NP/PA providers in hospital medicine (as well as an unfashionable vocabulary). The numbers at the time tell a similar story. In the Society of Hospital Medicine survey in 2007-2008, about 29% and 21% of hospital medicine practices utilized NPs and PAs, respectively. However, by 2014 about 50% of Veterans Affairs inpatient medical services deployed NP/PA providers, and most recent data from the Society of Hospital Medicine reveal that about 63% of groups use these advanced practice providers (APPs), with higher numbers in pediatric programs. Clearly there is evolving growth and enthusiasm for NP/PAs in hospital medicine.
Determining how best to use NP/PAs in hospital medicine programs has had a similar evolution. Reviewing past articles addressing these issues, one can see that there has been clear migration; initially NP/PAs were primarily hired to assist with late-afternoon admission surges, with about 60% of the APP workload being utilized to admit in 2007. Their role has continued to grow and change, much as hospitalist practices have; current program models consist of a few major types, with some novel models coming to the fore.
The first model is the classic paired rounding or “dyad” model. This is where a physician and an APP split a panel of patients. The APP then cares for his/her panel of patients, including daily visits, progress notes, calling consults, discharges, discharge summaries, procedures, billing, etc. The physician does the same for his/her panel of patients. The physician and the APP may then “run the list together” and the physician may then see most or all of the APP’s patients and bill for them when medical complexity demands. This allows for a higher volume of patients to be seen and billed, at a lower overall cost; it also provides for backup/support/redundancy for both team members when the patient acuity gets high.
Another model is use of an NP/PA in an observation unit or with lower acuity observation patients. The majority of the management of the patients is completed and billed by the APP, with the physician available for backup. This hits the “sweet spot,” utilizing the right provider with the right skill set for the right patient. The program has to account for some reimbursement or compensation for the physician oversight time, but it is a very efficient use of APPs.
The third major deployment of APPs is with admissions. Many groups use APPs to admit into the late afternoon and evening, getting patients “tucked in,” including starting diagnostic work-ups and treatment plans. The physician hospitalist then evaluates the patient the next day and often bills for the admission. This model works in situations where the patient work-up is dependent on lab testing, imaging, or other diagnostic testing to understand and plan for the “arc” of the hospitalization; or in situations where the diagnosis is clear, but the patient needs time with treatment to determine response. The downside of this model is long-term job satisfaction for the APP (although some programs have them rotate through such a model at intervals).
Another area where APPs have made strong inroads is that of comanagement services. The NP or PA develops a long-term relationship with a surgical comanagement team, and is often highly engaged and extremely appreciated for managing chronic conditions such as hypertension and diabetes. This can be a very satisfying model for both teams. The NP/PA usually bills independently for these encounters.
APPS are also used in cross coverage and triage roles, allowing the day teams to focus on their primary patients. In a triage role, they can interface with the emergency department, providing a semi-neutral “mediator” for patient disposition.
On the more novel end of the spectrum, there is growth in more independent roles for APP hospitalists. Some groups are having success at using the paired rounding or dyad model, but having the physician see the patient every third day. This is most successful where there is strong onboarding and deep clarity for when to contact the backup physician. There are some data to support the effectiveness of this model, most recently in the Journal of Clinical Outcomes Management.3
Critical access hospitals are also having success in deploying APPs in a very independent role, staffing these hospitals at night. Smaller, rural hospitals with aging medical staff have learned to maximize the scope of practice of their APPs to remain viable and provide care for inpatients. This can be a very successful model for APPs working at the maximum scope of their practice. In addition, the use of telemedicine has been implemented to allow for remote physician backup. This may be a rapidly growing arm to hospital medicine practices in the future.