The Economics of Mid-Levels

Another old post from The Physician Executive with currency in today’s environment. 


I was once a family physician delivering babies in an East Coast big city.

No, I am not a masochist, I was a family practice residency faculty.

Given the intense turf wars caused by an oversupply of competing specialists, it was an unpleasant environment to work. The concentration of specialty providers in big cities and urban areas poses some problems when it comes to costs. Frequently, one looks to mid-levels as a way of addressing problems in health care. Indeed Physician Assistants and Nurse Practitioners have a potentially important role to play in health care, but where?

Jason Shafrin at the Health Economist takes a look at midwives (included in the ranks of nurse practitioners for most of the latter part of the past century.)

I like midlevel providers like nurse practitioners and physician assistants because of their ability to bolster the ranks of primary care, the main engine of cost containment in health care. They can be invaluable in rural areas where it is difficult to entice specialists, even where there is a critical mass of demand for their services.

On the other hand, Jason’s post appears to be looking at midwives as a less costly alternative to obstetricians. A commenter on my site reminded me of Milton Friedman’s assertion that licensing leads to higher costs without assuring quality. In medicine, we have established a complicated and lengthy licensing process in the secure belief that the alternative was the chaos of snake-oil salesman that populated the United States at the turn of the last century. In other words, there was a compelling societal reason to limit and license people delivering health care.

I’m not sure what we accomplish by looking at mid levels as alternatives to established specialty providers. Moreover, specialists and midwives are equally maldistributed, being over-represented in metropolitan areas, where competition finds a way of increasing costs. Yes, health care acts strangely and higher concentrations of specialists tends to increase costs rather than reduce prices as one would expect.

On the other hand, finding an incentive to better distribute physicians may be a subtle way of improving physician incomes and health outcomes and reduce costs.

I want to make it clear once again, this is not a tirade against nurses or midwives. Nurses have saved my backside too often not to be collaborative and old school midwives working in labor and delivery taught me everything I know about delivering a baby.

I am questioning how we make policy in the face of a web of data and mess of potential starting points from which to approach the data.