3 Ways Nurse Practitioners and Physician Assistants Are Leading Healthcare Innovation

By Brittney Wilson  |  January 9, 2018

Healthcare is an ever-evolving field, which means there is a continual need for innovation. Nurse practitioners and physician assistants realize this need and are leading by example in meeting it.

With over 70% of NPs and PAs working in practices that consist of five or fewer physicians, there’s ample opportunity for them to find new and creative ways to tackle problems the practice is facing, as well as the patient population and community at large.

In addition to the fact that NPs and PAs are primarily working in small practices, the number of these providers is on the rise. In the last three years, NPs and PAs in the workforce have grown by 23%. This growing workforce is helping to transform the scope of education, background and skills that healthcare providers possess.

The diverse backgrounds of NPs, PAs and their physician counterparts create mounds of opportunity for innovation. Often just the introduction of someone with new life experiences and training can offer a paradigm shift and open the doors to new and exciting changes.

One common misconception is that that the term "innovation" can only be assigned to huge, newsworthy events. However, innovation doesn’t have to be of Elon Musk caliber. Merriam Webster defines innovation as “the introduction of something new" and "a new idea, method, or device: novelty.”

This means that healthcare innovation can happen every day.

Fortunately, NPs and PAs are stepping up to the plate and blazing a new trail to improve their practices in big and small ways. Here are just a few of categories of improvement:

  1. Disruptive Innovations
  2. Leading EHR Projects
  3. Innovating Through Social Media

Let’s take a dive into each of these areas.

1. Nurse Practitioners & Disruptive Innovations

Nurse practitioners themselves are still fairly new to the healthcare innovation game. The first nurse practitioner program only started in 1965, but the profession has been growing by leaps and bounds ever since. In fact, the profession has more than doubled in the last seven years alone. In 2010 there were 106,073 licensed nurse practitioners; this increased to over 234,000 in 2017.

The increase of nurse practitioners in the primary care setting is often viewed as a “disruptive innovation” meant to challenge the status quo of a healthcare system apt for reform. A recent article in Health Policy journal refers to nurse practitioners as “canaries in the coal mine.” Disruptive innovation is described as the following:

“The core idea is that from time to time a truly radical innovation will fundamentally re-organize a field by changing the very nature of products and the way they are embedded in a market. The process is somewhat similar to the concept of paradigm change in the evolution of science.”

The mere presence of nurse practitioners in the healthcare market is forcing change and innovation to occur. The process of redefining care boundaries and settings creates opportunities to improve care and decrease cost.

2. Physician Assistants Are Becoming EHR Leaders

While the boom of EHR implementation has calmed down as we’ve passed the critical years of Meaningful Use and transitioned to MACRA, the need for innovative healthcare leaders is as strong as ever. Nurses and physicians have typically led the charge in EHR implementations and support, but many physician assistants have an ideal skill set to lead EHR and informatics projects. This is likely because they are often facilitators in the practice and are excellent translators between nurses, physicians and patients—making them uniquely equipped to translate what is needed in an EHR system and workflow.

Many young, tech-savvy physician assistants can actually evolve their professional expertise and become informatics professionals that can lead:

  • EHR selections
  • EHR implementation
  • Performance improvement initiatives
  • Data analytics projects

They can also innovate by accepting and advocating for change within their practices by becoming resident technology super users.

3. NPs and PAs Can Lead and Inspire Innovation Through Social Media

With the rise of online channels like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and blogging, nurse practitioners and physician assistants have more opportunity than ever when it comes to leading and inspiring innovation in healthcare.

One simple way they can inspire innovation is by sharing the experiences and problem-solving strategies that they’ve implemented within their own practices. They can also share new trends and innovations being implemented by other forward-thinking healthcare professionals. This free-exchange of thoughts and ideas are a perfect breeding ground for radical healthcare improvements.

Social media can also help healthcare professionals build a personal brand as a thought leader in their unique specialty. It can empower providers with an opportunity to network with innovators in the field so they can pool their knowledge and collaborate. NPs and PAs can then take innovative practices shared and created online and apply them in their own work setting.

Taking the Next Step

While NPs and PAs are already innovating healthcare, the rapid increase of their presence in the workforce lends itself to an increase in professionals taking the lead in healthcare innovation. With intention, nurse practitioners and physician assistants are well positioned to make big and small innovations in healthcare every day.

One of the most important things to remember about innovation is that it doesn’t have to be massive to be impactful. New ideas can start small and make a big impact.

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