Open Access

Continued rise in the use of mid-level providers in US emergency departments, 1993–2009

  • David F M Brown1Email author,
  • Ashley F Sullivan1,
  • Janice A Espinola1 and
  • Carlos A CamargoJr1
International Journal of Emergency Medicine20125:21

DOI: 10.1186/1865-1380-5-21

Received: 21 February 2012

Accepted: 23 May 2012

Published: 23 May 2012

Abstract

Background

Emergency department (ED) visits in the US have risen dramatically over the past 2 decades. In order to meet the growing demand, mid-level providers (MLPs) – both physician assistants (PAs) and nurse practitioners (NPs) – were introduced into emergency care. Our objective was to test the hypothesis that MLP usage in US EDs continues to rise.

Findings

We analyzed ED data from the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey to identify trends in ED visits seen by MLPs. We also compared MLP-only visits (defined as visits where the patient was seen by a MLP without being seen by a physician) with those seen by physicians only. During 1993 to 2009, 8.4% (95%CI, 7.6–9.2%) of all US ED visits were seen by MLPs. These summary data include marked changes in MLP utilization: PA visits rose from 2.9% to 9.9%, while NP visits rose from 1.1% to 4.7% (both Ptrend < 0.001). Together, MLP visits accounted for almost 15% of 2009 ED visits and 40% of these were seen without involvement of a physician. Compared to physician only visits, those seen by MLPs only were less likely to arrive by ambulance (16% vs 6%) and be admitted (14% vs 3%).

Conclusions

Mid-level provider use is rising in US EDs. By 2009, approximately one in seven visits involved MLPs, with PAs managing twice as many visits as NPs. Although patients seen by MLPs only are generally of lower acuity, these nationally representative data confirm that MLP care extends beyond minor presentations.

Keywords

emergency department workforce mid-level providers physician assistants nurse practitioners trends NHAMCS

Findings

In recent years, emergency department (ED) visits have increased dramatically [1], and there are insufficient emergency physicians to care for all of these visits [2]. The physician shortage is likely to continue for several decades [3], particularly in rural areas of the country [46]. In order to meet the growing demand, mid-level providers (MLPs) – both physician assistants (PAs) and nurse practitioners (NPs) – were introduced into emergency care. Working alongside emergency physicians, MLPs can improve the efficiency of physicians seeing patients [7]. MLPs are less expensive (both to train and to compensate), and they are capable of managing lower acuity visits. However, at least one report found that MLPs, when working autonomously in EDs, are less likely to follow evidence-based clinical guidelines [8].

An early report on MLP utilization in US EDs examined 1992 data [9]. More recent work evaluated trends from 1993 to 2005 and indicated a growing role for MLPs, both in co-management with physicians and in autonomous patient care [10]. An understanding of more recent trends will inform ED workforce analyses, particularly in the context of the physician shortage. It also will help ED directors to better manage MLP roles as part of ED staffing. In this article, we evaluate MLP participation in US ED visits from 1993 to 2009. We hypothesized that the rising trend noted from 1993–2005 would continue through the end of 2009. Additionally, we hypothesized that the role of PAs would continue to outpace that of NPs as ED providers.

Methods

We combined data from the ED component of the 1993–2009 National Hospital and Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NHAMCS) to generate national estimates of ED visits seen by PAs and NPs. Methodological details of the NHAMCS survey are described elsewhere [11]. Briefly, NHAMCS is a four-stage probability sample of visits to US non-institutional general and short stay hospitals, conducted annually by the National Center for Health Statistics. Our institutional review board waived review.

We used the “Providers Seen” fields to analyze all visits seen by PAs and NPs, both with and without documented evidence of physician involvement in clinical care. PA data were collected from 1993 onward, while NP data were from 1995 onward. Physicians were defined as attending, staff, on call, consulting or other physician; on call fellow; or resident/intern. We excluded visits without documentation of MLP or physician involvement.

We performed all analyses using Stata 11.2 (StataCorp, College Station, TX) and utilized an ultimate cluster model to estimate variance. We accounted for NHAMCS variable changes spanning the study period, and all analyses used appropriate survey commands in Stata to account for the sampling frame. Publically available data files and detailed instructions on analysis of the data are available on the NHAMCS website [12].

We compared weighted proportions of characteristics with 95% confidence intervals (CIs) and weighted medians with interquartile ranges (IQR) for visits seen by different provider types. We analyzed annual trends using weighted linear regression with results reported as slopes, which represent the mean change per year in the proportion of the reported characteristic. Trend analyses that included visits seen by NPs were limited to years 1995–2009. A two-tailed P-value <0.05 was considered statistically significant.

Results

From 1993 to 2009, there were approximately 1.8 billion ED visits in the US. During this period, 6.3% (95%CI 5.5–7.0%) of all visits were seen by PAs and 2.5% (95%CI 2.1–2.8%) by NPs. Limiting the analyses to visits without evidence of physician involvement, autonomous care was provided by PAs for 2.6% (95%CI 2.1–3.1%) of all ED visits and by NPs for 1.1% (95%CI 0.9–1.3%).

Table 1 shows ED visit characteristics stratified by type of provider seen. Comparing visits seen by MLPs only to those seen by physicians only, there was variation among several patient, visit, and hospital characteristics. By contrast, characteristics of MLP visits with direct physician involvement were similar to those seen by physicians alone (data not shown).
Table 1

Characteristics of US emergency department visits seen by mid-level providers without physician involvement, compared to those seen by physicians only; 1993–2009

 

MLP only

Physician only

 

No. of visits

% (95%CI)

No. of visits

% (95%CI)

 

N = 17,316

 

N = 453,348

 

Patient characteristics

    

Age, years; median (IQR)

17,316

29 (16–44)

453,348

33 (17–52)

Female sex

9,136

53% (52–55)

240,899

53% (53–54)

Race

    

White

13,180

76% (72–80)

330,486

75% (74–77)

Black

3,612

22% (18–25)

104,590

22% (20–23)

Other

524

2.6% (2.1–3.1)

18,272

3.1% (2.7–3.5)

Ethnicity

    

Non-Hispanic

12,348

72% (67–77)

320,698

71% (69–72)

Hispanic

1,958

10% (8.3–12)

52,416

10% (9.1–11)

Missing

3,010

18% (14–22)

80,234

19% (18–21)

Insurance

    

Private

5,980

36% (34–38)

153,281

35% (34–36)

Public

5,731

33% (31–35)

168,147

36% (35–37)

Self-pay

3,225

18% (17–20)

69,486

16% (15–16)

Other/unknown

2,380

13% (11–15)

62,434

13% (13–14)

Visit characteristics

    

Arrival time*

    

8 a.m. – 3:59 p.m.

8,029

48% (46–50)

168,175

42% (41–42)

4 p.m. – 11:59 p.m.

7,189

44% (43–46)

168,011

42% (42–43)

12 a.m. – 7:59 a.m.

1,137

7.2% (6.3–8.2)

61,502

15% (15–16)

Arrival by ambulance+

854

6.1% (5.1–7.1)

47,960

16% (15–17)

Urgency

    

Urgent/Emergent

5,416

34% (30–38)

228,218

60% (58–61)

Nonurgent

9,579

66% (62–70)

153,078

40% (39–42)

Any imaging or X-ray

5,525

33% (31–35)

190,794

43% (42–43)

Any medication ordered

13,387

78% (76–79)

345,734

77% (76–77)

ED length of stay, hours;

median (IQR)#

12,647

1.9 (1.2–3.0)

256,427

2.4 (1.4–4.0)

Disposition

    

Admitted

545

3.1% (2.1–4.2)

65,627

14% (13–14)

Discharged/referred

16,638

96% (95–97)

384,245

85% (85–86)

Hospital characteristics

    

US region

    

Northeast

5,426

25% (16–34)

112,217

19% (17–22)

Midwest

3,524

20% (13–27)

101,524

25% (22–28)

South

5,050

36% (28–44)

153,170

38% (34–42)

West

3,316

19% (13–25)

86,437

18% (15–21)

Urban status

    

Urban

13,934

78% (68–87)

387,950

80% (75–85)

Nonurban

3,382

22% (13–32)

65,398

20% (15–25)

Hospital ownership

    

Non-profit

13,427

80% (74–87)

318,983

71% (68–74)

Government (non-federal)

2,869

13% (6.9–20)

77,604

15% (13–17)

Private/for profit

1,020

6.6% (4.0–9.1)

56,761

14% (12–16)

 

n = 17,316

 

n = 453,348

 

ED, emergency department; MLP, mid-level provider; CI: confidence interval; IQR, interquartile range.

*Available 1995–2009

+Available 1997–2000, 2003–2009

#Available 2001–2009

Figure 1 shows a continued rise in usage of both PAs and NPs over the study period. Visits seen by MLPs only increased from 1.2% (95%CI 0.6–1.9%) in 1995 to 5.7% (95%CI 4.1–7.4%) in 2009. Visits seen by MLPs with direct physician involvement increased from 2.8% (95%CI 1.7–3.9%) in 1995 to 8.8% (95%CI 6.7–10.8%) in 2009.
Figure 1

Trends in emergency department visits seen by mid-level providers with or without direct physician involvement, 1993–2009. Physician assistant visits without physician involvement (solid circle): slope = 0.002 (95%CI, 0.001 to 0.003). Nurse practitioner visits without physician involvement (solid square): slope = 0.001 (95%CI, 0.0007 to 0.002). Physician assistant visits with physician involvement (empty circle): slope = 0.002 (95%CI, 0.0016 to 0.003). Nurse practitioner visits with physician involvement (empty square): slope = 0.001 (95%CI, 0.0009 to 0.002).

Among visits seen by MLPs only, the proportion of nonurgent visits may have increased very slightly from 70% (95%CI, 56–83%) in 1995 to 71% (95%CI 65–78%) in 2009 (slope, 0.01; 95%CI 0.002 to 0.02), with a reciprocal decrease in urgent visits, from 30% to 29%. Among visits in urban EDs, the proportion of visits seen only by MLPs increased from 0.7% (95%CI 0.4–1.1%) in 1995 to 5.7% (95%CI 4.0–7.4%) in 2009 (slope, 0.004; 95%CI 0.002 to 0.005), whereas the proportion of MLP-only visits among nonurban visits was less marked, increasing by about 50% from 3.0% in 1995 to 5.8% in 2009 (slope, 0.003; 95%CI –0.001 to 0.007).

Discussion

During 1993 to 2009, there were 1.8 billion ED visits, of which 8.4% were managed at least partly by MLPs. Although there are differences in the penetrance of MLPs into US emergency care (e.g., with regard to type of mid-level, hospital, and setting), we found that ED visits seen by MLPs have increased steadily, and MLPs have become an essential part of the US emergency medicine workforce. MLPs provided care for 4.1% of ED visits in 1995 and this rose to 14.5% in 2009. Furthermore, those visits managed by MLPs only increased from 1.1% to 5.7% during the same time period.

These findings support our earlier NHAMCS analysis [10] and suggest that, with continued annual growth of ED visits, expansion of care to non-physicians is inevitable since there are insufficient physicians to fully staff US EDs, let alone mandate staffing by emergency medicine board-certified physicians only [13]. The physician shortage is likely to continue for several decades [3], particularly given the difficulty of incenting physicians to take positions in rural EDs [14]. In addition, the growing pressures to reduce costs can be addressed by hiring more MLPs, who are less expensive providers. On the positive side, workforce expansion with MLPs might improve quality and safety of care by improving such metrics as door-to-provider time and percentage of patients who leave the ED without being evaluated. Prior studies have found that ED patients are satisfied with the care provided by MLPs [15, 16] and that few prefer to wait longer to be seen by a physician [15]. Nevertheless, quality concerns remain [8].

MLPs participate in the care of low acuity visits, but they also care for sicker patients (as measured by ambulance usage and admission), albeit at a lower rate than among visits seen by physicians. Despite statistical significance, these two markers of ED acuity did not materially change during the study period. Nevertheless, because the overall number of ED visits has steadily increased, even small percentages imply that large absolute numbers of higher acuity patients are being managed by MLPs alone. While this may not be ideal, it may be necessary to keep up with the growing demand for emergency care.

The role of PAs in US EDs continues to outpace that of NPs. PA involvement has grown from 2.9% in 1995 to 9.9% in 2009 while NP involvement rose from 1.1% to 4.7% during the same interval. In addition, PA-only visits continued to rise through 2009, while NP-only visits may have begun to level off (Figure 1). The shorter training period needed to gain a PA license, as compared with first obtaining an RN and then proceeding with specialized NP training, and marked expansion of PA graduates during the last decade of the twentieth century [17] probably contribute to this finding.

The study has some potential limitations. NHAMCS is subject to the limitations of survey research, with possible errors in data collection and coding. In particular, data abstractors may have recorded incorrect or incomplete data on the type of ED provider(s) seen. However, data collection errors of the NHAMCS should not vary significantly between years and likely would have limited impact on trend analysis. In addition, because NHAMCS provided only visit-level weights from 1993–2009 and added ED-level weights in 2005, we cannot yet evaluate whether temporal trends relate to more EDs hiring MLPs or increased use of MLPs in hospitals that already employed them; with additional years of data, these analyses should become possible.

In summary, MLP use continues to rise in US EDs, with greater increases seen for PAs than NPs. By 2009, approximately one in seven ED visits involved a MLP, with a substantial number seen by MLPs alone. MLPs have established themselves as a major part of the EM workforce, and although visits seen by MLPs only are generally of lower acuity, their autonomous care of more serious cases confirms that their role extends beyond minor presentations. As such, the onus will be on emergency physicians and their professional societies to provide MLPs with adequate supervision when needed and more widely available educational opportunities. The implications of these ED staffing trends for quality of care and cost-effectiveness merit further study.

Funding

None

Abbreviations

ED: 

emergency department

MLP: 

mid-level provider

PA: 

physician assistant

NP: 

nurse practitioner

NHAMCS: 

National Hospital and Ambulatory Medical Care Survey

CI: 

confidence interval

IQR: 

interquartile range.

Declarations

Authors’ Affiliations

(1)
Department of Emergency Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School

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Copyright

© Brown et al.; licensee Springer. 2012

This article is published under license to BioMed Central Ltd. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.