The Los Angeles Times reports this week that one side effect of the Affordable Care Act (sometimes called Obamacare) could be to push allied health professionals into diagnostic and treatment roles traditionally held by only physicians. The reason? With so many new people joining the ranks of the insured, many parts of the country simply won’t have enough doctors to treat them all.
The L.A. Times article looks specifically at California, where lawmakers have already proposed changes to policies that would allow nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and other allied health professionals to practice independently of doctors. In fact, more than 300 bills altering what healthcare professionals can legally do have been brought before state legislatures in the last two years.
But not everyone is thrilled about this potential shift.
Efficiency vs. Expense in Healthcare Treatments
The argument for allowing allied health professionals to take a more comprehensive role in patient diagnosis and treatment is compelling when you consider the inefficiencies of the current system. If a patient sees a dermatologist about slow-healing cuts or bruises, for example, and the dermatologist realizes the patient also has other symptoms of Type 2 Diabetes, he or she can’t diagnose that condition – instead, the patient must wait to see a primary care physician.
The waiting list to see such a doctor, though, could be months, especially as more people enter an already-crowded system.
On the other hand, though, opponents of letting allied health professionals take on more responsibility suggest that less-experienced healthcare providers (including those in allied health fields) tend to prescribe medication and order tests more frequently than more experienced doctors, which drives up medical costs for everyone.
With healthcare expenses already spiraling out of control across the U.S., the prospect of any change that makes costs higher is unappealing.
Shortage of Medical Professionals Won’t End Soon
Even if new laws expand the capabilities of allied health professionals, however, some critics warn that there’s no way to easily fix the problem of shortage of care: allowing non-physicians to practice independently might simply create holes in the hospitals and other healthcare facilities where they currently work.
Analysts predict the coming years will be big for allied professionals in a variety of fields, in part because of the overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system and in part because 65 million Baby Boomers are reaching retirement age, meaning that their healthcare needs are likely to grow in the coming years.