Practice Management

How to expand the APP role in a crisis

An opportunity to better appreciate the value of PAs, NPs


Advanced practice providers – physician assistants and nurse practitioners – at the 733-bed Emory University Hospital in Atlanta are playing an expanded role in the admission of patients into the hospital, particularly those suspected of having COVID-19.

Susan Ortiz, a certified PA, lead advanced practice professional at Emory University Hospital, Atlanta.

Susan Ortiz

Before the pandemic crisis, evaluation visits by the APP would have been reviewed on the same day by the supervising physician through an in-person encounter with the patient. The new protocol is not outside of scope-of-practice regulations for APPs in Georgia or of the hospital’s bylaws. But it offers a way to help limit the overall exposure of hospital staff to patients suspected of COVID-19 infection, and the total amount of time providers spend in such patients’ room. Just one provider now needs to meet the patient during the admissions process, while the attending physician can fulfill a requirement for seeing the patient within 24 hours during rounds the following day. Emergency encounters would still be done as needed.

These protocols point toward future conversations about the limits to APPs’ scope of practice, and whether more expansive approaches could be widely adopted once the current crisis is over, say advocates for the APPs’ role.

“Our APPs are primarily doing the admissions to the hospital of COVID patients and of non-COVID patients, as we’ve always done. But with COVID-infected or -suspected patients, we’re trying to minimize exposure for our providers,” explained Susan Ortiz, a certified PA, lead APP at Emory University Hospital. “In this way, we can also see more patients more efficiently.” Ms. Ortiz said she finds in talking to other APP leads in the Emory system that “each facility has its own culture and way of doing things. But for the most part, they’re all trying to do something to limit providers’ time in patients’ rooms.”

In response to the rapidly moving crisis, tactics to limit personnel in COVID patients’ rooms to the “absolutely essential” include gathering much of the needed history and other information requested from the patient by telephone, Ms. Ortiz said. This can be done either over the patient’s own cell phone or a phone placed in the room by hospital staff. Family members may be called to supplement this information, with the patient’s consent.

Once vital sign monitoring equipment is hooked up, it is possible to monitor the patient’s vital signs remotely without making frequent trips into the room. That way, in-person vital sign monitoring doesn’t need to happen routinely – at least not as often. One observation by clinicians on Ms. Ortiz’s team: listening for lung sounds with a stethoscope has not been shown to alter treatment for these patients. Once a chest X-ray shows structural changes in a patient’s lung, all lung exams are going to sound bad.

The admitting provider still needs to meet the patient in person for part of the admission visit and physical exam, but the amount of time spent in close personal contact with the patient can be much shorter, Ms. Ortiz said. For patients who are admitted, if there is a question about difficulty swallowing, they will see a speech pathologist, and if evidence of malnutrition, a nutritionist. “But we have to be extremely thoughtful about when people go into the room. So we are not ordering these ancillary services as routinely as we do during non-COVID times,” she said.


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