Pregnant and scared, Natasha Valle went to a Tennova Healthcare hospital in Clarksville, Tennessee, in January 2021 because she was bleeding. She didn’t know much about miscarriage, but this seemed like one.
In the emergency room, she was examined then sent home, she said. She went back when her cramping became excruciating. Then home again. It ultimately took three trips to the ER on three consecutive days, generating three separate bills, before she saw a doctor who looked at her bloodwork and confirmed her fears.
Related: ER doctors call private equity staffing practices illegal and seek to ban them
“At the time I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, I need to see a doctor,’” Valle recalled. “But when you think about it, it’s like, ‘Well — dang — why didn’t I see a doctor?’” It’s unclear whether the repeat visits were due to delays in seeing a physician, but the experience worried her. And she’s still paying the bills.
The hospital declined to discuss Valle’s care, citing patient privacy. But 17 months before her three-day ordeal, Tennova had outsourced its emergency rooms to American Physician Partners, a medical staffing company owned by private equity investors. APP employs fewer doctors in its ERs as one of its cost-saving initiatives to increase earnings, according to a confidential company document obtained by KHN and NPR.
This staffing strategy has permeated hospitals, and particularly emergency rooms, that seek to reduce their top expense: physician labor. While diagnosing and treating patients was once their domain, doctors are increasingly being replaced by nurse practitioners and physician assistants, collectively known as “midlevel practitioners,” who can perform many of the same duties and generate much of the same revenue for less than half of the pay.
“APP has numerous cost-saving initiatives underway as part of the Company’s continual focus on cost optimization,” the document says, including a “shift of staffing” between doctors and midlevel practitioners.
In a statement to KHN, American Physician Partners said this strategy is a way to ensure all ERs remain fully staffed, calling it a “blended model” that allows doctors, nurse practitioners and physician assistants “to provide care to their fullest potential.”
Critics of this strategy say the quest to save money results in treatment meted out by someone with far less training than a physician, leaving patients vulnerable to misdiagnoses, higher medical bills, and inadequate care. And these fears are bolstered by evidence that suggests dropping doctors from ERs may not be good for patients.
A working paper, published in October by the National Bureau of Economic Research, analyzed roughly 1.1 million visits to 44 ERs throughout the Veterans Health Administration, where nurse practitioners can treat patients without oversight from doctors.
Researchers found that treatment by a nurse practitioner resulted on average in a 7% increase in cost of care and an 11% increase in length of stay, extending patients’ time in the ER by minutes for minor visits and hours for longer ones. These gaps widened among patients with more severe diagnoses, the study said, but could be somewhat mitigated by nurse practitioners with more experience.
The study also found that ER patients treated by a nurse practitioner were 20% more likely to be readmitted to the hospital for a preventable reason within 30 days, although the overall risk of readmission remained very small.
Yiqun Chen, who is an assistant professor of economics at the University of Illinois-Chicago and co-authored the study, said these findings are not an indictment of nurse practitioners in the ER. Instead, she said, she hopes the study will guide how to best deploy nurse practitioners: in treatment of simpler patients or circumstances when no doctor is available.
“It’s not just a simple question of if we can substitute physicians with nurse practitioners or not,” Chen said. “It depends on how we use them. If we just use them as independent providers, especially … for relatively complicated patients, it doesn’t seem to be a very good use.”
Chen’s research echoes smaller studies, like one from The Harvey L. Neiman Health Policy Institute that found nonphysician practitioners in ERs were associated with a 5.3% increase in imaging, which could unnecessarily increase bills for patients. Separately, a study at the Hattiesburg Clinic in Mississippi found that midlevel practitioners in primary care — not in the emergency department — increased the out-of-pocket costs to patients while also leading to worse performance on nine of 10 quality-of-care metrics, including cancer screenings and vaccination rates.
But definitive evidence remains elusive that replacing ER doctors with nonphysicians has a negative impact on patients, said Dr. Cameron Gettel, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Yale. Private equity investment and the use of midlevel practitioners rose in lockstep in the ER, Gettel said, and in the absence of game-changing research, the pattern will likely continue.
“Worse patient outcomes haven’t really been shown across the board,” he said. “And I think until that is shown, then they will continue to play an increasing role.”