The Future of Nursing 2020–2030 Charting a Path to Achieve Health Equity report, issued by the National Academy of Medicine Committee on the Future of Nursing 2020-2030, is addressing topics that will impact the nursing industry in the coming years. Sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the report examined issues and topics foremost on the minds of those in the industry and brought forward recommendations to help guide important changes including scope of practice regulations, health and well-being of nurses, and better payment models.
Minority Nurse spoke with Regina Cunningham PhD, RN, NEA-BC, FAAN, CEO of the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, professor of nursing at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, and a member of the Committee on the Future of Nursing 2020–2030, about the report’s findings on regulations surrounding the scope of practice for advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) and lifting barriers to expand the contributions of nursing.
Changing State Regulations
Currently, 27 states restrict the autonomous practice of nurse practitioners, despite the nurses having the education and training to practice in such a manner. With advocates working to remove these remaining restrictions, Cunningham says the progress is happening, but slow. “Each state has regulations that govern advanced practice registered nurse scope of practice,” she says. “When we say APRN, there are really four groups of nurses we are talking about. Most commonly it is nurse practitioners, but also includes certified nurse midwives, certified registered nurse anesthetists, and clinical nurse specialists.” The report also looks at the institutional barriers for other nurses, including registered nurses (RNs) and licensed practical nurses (LPNs), to allow them to practice to the top of their education and training.
The restrictions have been loosening ever so slowly. “There has been considerable progress in this area, I will says that,” says Cunningham, “but it has taken a couple of decades. There are 27 states that don’t allow APRNs in those states to do things they are educationally prepared to do. Examples include prescribing medicine, diagnosing a patient, and providing treatment independent of a physician. Even when it is allowed, there are administrative burdens. It’s not a very nimble system.”
Increasing Access to High-quality Care
The Future of Nursing report did a lot of research on the elements and regulations that limit access to care in general and to the high-quality care offered by APRNs, says Cunningham. And while opponents say that non-physician providers are less likely to provide high-quality care because they don’t have the same training or clinical experience, Cunningham disagrees saying the data doesn’t show that quality of patient care is reduced. “Arguments are made against scope of practice being relaxed really are not keeping the patient at the center of the discussion and it should be at the center of the discussion,” she says. “APRNs bring specific skills and knowledge. In states with restrictions, patients have less access to primary care.”
What autonomous practice does, she says, is significantly increase access to care, especially in rural and underserved communities where physician care may be scarce or difficult to access. APRNs aren’t looking to practice brain surgery, says Cunningham. What they will do, and are trained to do, is provide high-quality primary care services.
At various times, changes to these rules have proven to be especially effective. Interestingly, Cunningham says the COVID-19 pandemic inspired eight states to suspend scope of practice restrictions as a key strategy to manage the pandemic care in the interests of the public and when the health of the nation was at risk. The strategy worked so well, some of those states have moved to make those changes permanent, she says. In 2016 APRNs also saw expanded practice regulations when the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act allowed nurse practitioners to prescribe buprenorphine, a drug used to manage addiction, says Cunningham. The bill increased access to care in rural areas and helped keep patients with substance use disorder safe. When federal authority supersedes state regulations (such as this instance), says Cunningham, that should be looked at more closely as it gives evidence of how loosening regulations can protect public health.
Reducing Administrative Burden
Granting nurses autonomy also helps organizations stay nimble, says Cunningham. It allows them to move nurses where they are needed during times of crisis like COVID, without the extensive forms and processes typically required. COVID, says Cunningham, showed how being able to move nurses to different areas to treat patients or to cover for nurses who were called to a different area, was essential to patient health.
And while the immediate outcomes look positive, Cunningham says the data that emerges from the pandemic will tell a more complete story. “Reductions in mortality especially will be the kind of outcomes data that will be compelling to make this permanent,” she says. “The current recommendation is that all changes that were adopted in response to COVID should be made permanent by 2022. That’s a strong recommendation coming out of the report, but there’s good data to show this is a strong direction.”
Improving Care Access Through the Workforce
And the sheer number of working APRNs would offer a significant boost to primary care efforts where they are especially needed such as in rural or low-income areas. “For counties that are deficient in the number of primary care providers, meeting the needs of the population is important,” says Cunningham. “It creates more equitable communities.”
To remain focused on the patient, the report’s findings show many ways APRNs are trained and educated to improve patient outcomes. “We should be focused on the health of the nation,” says Cunningham. “The current situation is antiquated given the health concerns of the nation. It is not focused on the patient. We need to ask, ‘How do we improve the health of the nation?'”
The report finds removing restrictions also has other benefits. “The clinical piece of this,” says Cunningham, “is that it would be extremely empowering for nurses to do all the things they are prepared to do.”