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Health Professions Regulation in the U.S.

The Impact of Scope of Practice

A key goal of health reform in the U.S. is to improve population health through expanded access to health insurance. Demand for high-quality, cost-effective, basic health services is anticipated to grow, particularly for underserved populations. However, there is also growing concern about the impact of health professions scope of practice on access, quality, and cost of health services. Since health professions regulation falls under state jurisdiction, the legal scope of practice for a health profession is typically defined in a state-specific scope of practice act. These acts describe the services that professionals can provide and under what conditions they can be provided. Scope of practice acts also define the requirements for education and training, certification and licensure, and supervision. Restrictive legal scopes of practice often serve as a barrier to effective and efficient delivery of health services.

Key Issues and Challenges Related to Scope of Practice Regulation

  • Legal scope of practice vs professional scope of practice or competence
    • While a health professional may be trained and competent to provide a service, a restrictive legal scope of practice in a state may prohibit him/her from providing a service in that state
    • Legal scope of practice and professional competence overlap, and the amount of overlap varies by state and by profession (eg, state-to-state scope of practice variation for nurse practitioners)
  • Overly restrictive scope of practice for a profession can limit patients’ access to care
    • Can increase the cost of a service when it can only be provided by a more highly skilled professional (eg, a nurse can immunize a patient while a medical assistant cannot)
  • Lack of consistency in scope of practice across states
    • Limits professional mobility
    • Challenging for multistate health care provider organizations and providers of telehealth services that cross state lines
  • Changing existing scope of practice regulations for a profession is often a costly, time-consuming, adversarial, and incremental process involving many stakeholders with divergent opinions about the proposed change/s
    • Although the primary purpose of scope of practice regulation is to protect public safety, efforts to change scope of practice requirements often include an element of professional self-interest from professions that already perform a task or provide a service

Policy reforms to support improvements in scope of practice decision making include:

  • Aligning profession-specific legal scopes of practice with professional competence
  • Increasing participation of consumers in scope of practice decision making
  • Using the best available evidence about what is best for patients in scope of practice decision making
  • Allowing short-term demonstration/pilot programs that are carefully evaluated to test new approaches when evidence is not available
  • Establishing a national clearinghouse on scope of practice information and research with up-to-date and reliable information on scope of practice proposals, modifications, demonstrations, innovations, evaluations, and model practice acts

Relevant Information and Research

2015-Present

Barton Associates. NP Scope of Practice Laws.

Gadbois EA, Miller EA, Tyler D, Intrator O. Trends in state regulation of nurse practitioners and physician assistants, 2001 to 2010. Medical care research and review : MCRR. 2015;72(2):200-219. doi:10.1177/1077558714563763.

Koppelman J, Vitzthum K, Simon L. Expanding where dental therapists can practice could increase Americans’ access to cost-efficient care. Health Aff. 2016;35(12):2200-6.

Langelier M, Continelli T, Moore J, Baker B, Surdu S. Expanded scopes of practice for dental hygienists associated with improved oral health outcomes for adults. Health Aff. 2016;35(12):2207-2215. http://dx.doi.org/10.1377/hlthaff.2016.0807

Xue Y, Ye Z, Brewer C, Spetz J. Impact of state nurse practitioner scope-of-practice regulation on health care delivery: Systematic review. Nursing outlook. 2016;64(1):71-85.

2010-2015

Dower C, Moore J, Langelier M, It is time to restructure health professions scope-of-practice regulations to remove barriers to care. Health Aff. 2013; 32(11)1971-6. doi: 10.1377/hlthaff.2013.0537.

Hain D, Fleck L. Barriers to NP practice that impact healthcare redesign. Online Journal of Issues in Nursing. 2014.

Kuo Y, Loresto FL, Rounds LR, Goodwin JS. States with the least restrictive regulations experienced the largest increase in patients seen by nurse practitioners. Health Aff. 2013;32(7):1236–1243. doi:10.1377/hlthaff.2013.0072.

National Council of State Legislatures, Scope of Practice Legislative Database (Jan 2011 – Dec 2012)

National Council of State Legislatures, Scope of Practice Overview, 2013 Enacted Legislation

Safriet B. Federal Options for Maximizing the Value of Advanced Practice Nurses in Providing Quality, Cost-Effective Health Care. (Excerpted from Appendix H of The Future of Nursing: Leading Change, Advancing Health (Institute of Medicine, 2011.)

Spetz J, Parente S, Town R, Bazarko D. Scope-of-practice laws for nurse practitioners limit cost savings that can be achieved in retail clinics. Health Aff. 2013;32(11): 1977-1984. doi: 10.1377/hlthaff.2013.0544.

Traczynski J, Udalova V. Nurse Practitioner Independence, Health Care Utilization, and Health Outcomes. [Internet]. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin; 2013.

2005-2010

Dower C, Christian S, O’Neil E. Center for the Health Professions, University of California, San Francisco. Promising Scope of Practice Models for the Health Professions, 2007.

National Council of State Boards of Nursing, Changes in Healthcare Professions’ Scope of Practice: Legislative Considerations

2000-2005

Safriet B. Closing the Gap Between Can and May in Health Care Providers’ Scope of Practice: A Primer for Policymakers. Yale Law School, Faculty Scholarship Series, Paper 4422. 2002;301. 

Model Practice Acts

Professional scope of practice or competence is often found in model practice acts developed by a profession and describes the services that its members are trained and competent to perform.

Innovations in Health Professions Regulation