Blurring the Lines of the Scope of Practice

Guest post by Edgar T. Wilson, writer, consultant and analyst.

Edgar T. Wilson
Edgar T. Wilson

When we talk about technology disrupting healthcare, we aren’t just referring to changes in the accuracy of health records or the convenience of mobile care; the real disruption comes in the form of fundamental challenges to traditional scopes of practice.

What Should We Do?

Scope of practice, broadly, is determined by a combination of liability and capability. Lead physicians carry greater liability than the bedside nurses assisting in patient care, because the care plan is directed by the lead physician. Likewise, the extra years of education and practice are assumed to increase the capacity of physicians to lead their care teams, make decisions about how the team will go about its work, and parse all of the information provided by the patient, nurses and other specialists involved with each case.

In every other industry, productivity increases come from technology enhancing the ability of individuals and teams to perform work. Email saves time and money by improving communication; industrial robotics standardize manufacturing and raise the scale and quality of output. Every device, app and system allows individuals to scale their contribution, to do more and add more value. Word processing and voice-to-text enable executives to do work that might otherwise have been performed by a secretary or typist. Travel websites allow consumers to find cheap tickets and travel packages that would previously have required a travel agent to acquire.

In healthcare, technology is changing the capacity of the individual caregiver, expanding what can be done, and often how well it can be done. These improvements, along with a growing need for healthcare professionals and services, are challenging traditional notions of scope of practice–for good and bad.

New Beginnings

Some of the changes to scope of practice are positive, necessary, and constructive. For example, technological literacy is necessary at every point in the care continuum, because interoperable EHRs and the vulnerability of digital information means that everyone must contribute to cyber security. In a sense, caregivers at every level must expand their scope of practice to incorporate an awareness of privacy, security,and data management considerations.

By extension, all caregivers are participating as never before in the advancement of clinical research, population health monitoring, and patient empowerment simply by working more closely with digital data and computers. As EHR technology iterates its way toward fulfilling its potential, caregivers and administrators are being forced to have difficult conversations about priorities, values, goals and the nature of the relationship between patient, provider, system, and technology. It is overdue, and foundational to the future of healthcare.

Is There A Nurse in the House?

The trend in healthcare toward prevention and balancing patient-centered care with awareness of population health issues puts primary care in a place of greater importance than ever. This, in turn, is driving a shift in the education of nurses to promote more training, higher levels of certification, and greater specialization to justify relying on nurses to fulfill more primary care roles. They are becoming better generalists and specialists, capable of bolstering teams as well as leading them.

The advancement of diagnostic technologies and understanding of the nature of disease, illness, and genetics has also thrust the clinical laboratory into the center of healthcare. It doesn’t necessarily change the scope of practice for the laboratory scientist, but does elevate the demand and scale of operations for these professionals must fulfill. Once again, the broadening demand has dovetailed with an effort to broaden the scope of practice for other clinical roles, particularly nurses.

Whether it is appropriate or practical for nurses — already understaffed and overextended — into all these critical blended roles is open for debate.

Man, Machine and Medicine

While cross-training is valuable for improving collaboration and breaking down siloes — both critically important to the future of healthcare — it blurring the scope of practice or between roles that comprise very different skills and responsibilities. Technology is expanding the capability of every clinical and non-clinical role, but is it not entirely clear whether it is keeping up with our expectations and demand for the people in these roles.

In addition to answering these questions about scope of practice, we need to look carefully at how technology can change the scope of accountability for patients. Technology may be a platform for engagement, but getting real patient participation requires a better foundation of health literacy — just as caregivers must develop a more robust technological literacy to take advantage of EHRs.

The only thing that is beyond question at this point is that we cannot go back; the new technology of healthcare is here to stay. How we define roles — both new and old — must evolve if we are to take full advantage of it all. That means balancing greater autonomy with collaboration, accountability with education. It may also mean that titles, duties and hierarchies among care teams continue to blur as we move forward.

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