Adding Advanced Practice Providers to a Neurology Practice—Four Perspectives

If you could change your neurology practice to serve more patients more quickly, with no loss of care to those patients, would you do it? Before you answer, add this to the equation: What if the change made a positive financial impact to your practice? And what if it meant that you could go home on time more nights than you otherwise would?

Those are the outcomes reported by neurology practices contacted for this article that have incorporated advanced practice providers, or APPs, into their clinics.

More commonly known by such professional designations as nurse practitioners or physician assistants, APPs are being used by more medical practices nationally to extend the reach of the doctor while holding down costs—two increasingly critical outcomes in an era of doctor shortages and restricted medical reimbursement. In specialty practices such as neurology, the role of the APP may be even more critical, given the acute shortage of neurologists in some areas and the steady growth of neurology cases among the aging population.

But as simple as the equation may seem—add APP, improve practice—the reality is naturally more complicated. First, of course, there’s the question of acceptance by neurologists. Objections range from discomfort delegating patient care duties to apprehension about patient reaction to concerns about training APPs into the practice.

While resolving case management issues and patient expectations are not overly difficult tasks, training remains a significant issue for using APPs in a clinical setting. Even though nurse practitioners and physician assistants are trained and certified in their professions, they are unlikely to have extensive education on neurology cases. That leaves the doctor to provide structured, hands-on clinical training—a daunting and time-consuming task.


SLASHING PATIENT WAITING TIMES

Recently retired from a two-doctor headache center in New York state, Heidi Schwarz, MD, FAAN, understands the training dilemma firsthand. When she and her colleague first opened the center, demand for their services was very high. “We quickly realized we needed help,” Schwarz said. “We had a four- to six-month waiting list for new patients.” Having worked with an APP in a previous appointment at the University of Rochester, Schwarz realized this could be the solution they needed. They hired a nurse practitioner Schwarz knew and gave her a focused six-week orientation, first as a shadow to the doctors and then seeing patients in tandem. The results were dramatic.

“She became a huge asset to the practice,” Schwarz said. “The wait time went down to two to four weeks, she markedly improved the volume of the practice, and she cut the lag time for response to patient questions.” At first, the APP was mainly seeing follow-up patients, but the center was still experiencing a backup with new cases. The doctors struggled with the idea of having the nurse practitioner see new patients, so they developed a screening process with the front desk. If the patient had seen a neurologist elsewhere, the nurse practitioner might take the case, depending on her comfort after reviewing the records. In most other cases, the neurologists would see the new patient.

Schwarz, who has accepted a new appointment, is looking forward to training another APP when she joins the University of Rochester Department of Neurology Division of Headache Medicine in New York next month. In her role as vice chair of the AAN Practice Committee, she will continue to explore more options for bringing APPs into neurologic practices.

BUILDING AN IN-HOUSE TRAINING PROGRAM

James C. Stevens, MD, FAAN, practices as a partner with the Fort Wayne Neurological Center and serves on the AAN Board of Directors. Like Schwarz, he is convinced of the value brought by advanced practice providers. A referral-only practice, the center was risking its relationship with referring physicians 12 years ago when the wait time for new patients climbed to four months. By incorporating APPs into the practice, they reduced the wait time to one to two weeks and realized other benefits as well: strong bonds between the patients and the APPs and the ability to expand some of the center’s programs, including the intrathecal baclofen program, the deep brain stimulator management program, and the vagal nerve stimulator program.

Perhaps surprisingly, an additional benefit has been the center’s ability to use the staffing model to recruit neurologists. For the Midwest clinic, “Recruiting neurologists is a 24/7, 365 days-a-year job,” Stevens said. “You never stop looking. Using APPs helps fill the demand, but it’s also a plus in recruiting neurologists. They make our practice more efficient, add to the bottom line, allow us to see more complex cases in a timely fashion.” Today the center has expanded from one nurse practitioner to nine APPs supporting 11 neurologists and seven neurosurgeons. The practice also includes five neuropsychologists.

To standardize care and ensure quality among the advanced practice providers, Stevens initiated an APP training program still used by the center, including months dedicated to shadowing the facilitating neurologist and intensive reading assigned to the advanced practice providers before they begin seeing the more stable patients for follow-up care. In this plan, the APP begins with a focus on one specialty such as Parkinson’s and adds another specialty only after mastering the first. Stevens notes that it can take three or four years for the APP to feel comfortable and gain expertise for the different cases, but the result is a highly trained professional who can be useful in both the clinic and hospital setting.

PAYMENT REFORM AS AN IMPETUS
Michael Kitchell, MD, is another Midwest neurologist whose practice struggles with recruiting doctors. As Board president of McFarland Clinic in Ames, Iowa, and a member of the AAN’s Payment Alternatives team, Kitchell is used to looking at the big picture when it comes to staffing. Although his neurology team currently encompasses only four doctors and two APPs, the clinic’s total employment includes 180 physicians and 40 nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and nurse midwives. With so many specialties to consider, Kitchell sees the use of APPs as an essential area of growth for practices. “This is not just a neurology phenomenon,” he says. “We’re seeing this with other specialties as well. It’s a definite national trend.”

One reason for the trend, Kitchell notes, is the rising influence of payment reform on medical practices. “Accountable care organizations try to get everybody practicing at the top of their licenses, so they don’t hire as many specialists,” he said. Further, the Medicare payments to rural areas are drastically lower than elsewhere, disproportionate to differences in the cost of operating the practice. The combination of lower reimbursements, increased pressure from ACOs, and ongoing physician recruitment challenges leads to Kitchell’s assessment that the use of advanced practice providers is essential to the survival of rural practices.

As with the other clinicians interviewed for this article, Kitchell has seen shortened patient wait times and increased physician productivity. He has heard the argument from doctors that using APPs slows down their processes, but he doesn’t agree. “They don’t see the big picture,” he says. “Even though I staff (the APPs) 10 minutes of the hour, the other 50 minutes they’re not staffed. And it is financially viable. You’re not going to make a lot of money from nurse practitioners and physician assistants, but you’re not going to lose money either.”

Not incidental to Kitchell’s assessment are the human factors for both the doctor and the patient. “I don’t want people to wait that long to be seen. This is about meeting the needs of the community and serving the greater good.” But the staffing model also gets the doctor home earlier, a difficult trick in any circumstance. Without the APPs, Kitchell said, “I probably would be working two or three more hours each day. They take the pressure off.”

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