Objectives: Our study describes patient care staff patterns and roles in community-based family practices.
Study design: We used a multimethod comparative case study design that included detailed descriptive field notes of the office environment of 18 family practices and of 1637 clinical encounters, as well as in-depth interviews of practice staff and physicians. Systematic analysis of these data provided detailed descriptions of patient care staff patterns and functions.
Population: We included physicians and staff in 18 community-based Nebraska family practices.
Results: Practices are staffed with a range of clinical personnel, including registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, certified medical assistants, radiology technicians, and trained and untrained medical assistants. Each of these has specific educational preparation that potentially qualifies them for different patient care roles; however, staff roles were determined primarily by local needs and physician expectations rather than by education, training, or licensure. Staffing patterns varied greatly; the majority of practices employed at least one registered nurse (10 of 18), one licensed practical nurse (5), or both (4). Still, the overall majority of practices used non-nursing personnel as the predominate patient care staff. Patient care staff-to-clinician ratios ranged from a low of 0.5 to a high of 3.3.
Conclusions: Many recent recommendations about collaborative models of clinical care seem problematic when put into a context of the findings of current staffing patterns and use of personnel in family practices. Staff members often fulfill roles independent of training. Staff leadership is also potentially important for designing effective collaborative care models; however, we found leadership only occurred with the approval of clinic authorities. These practical issues are rarely addressed in normative recommendations about system change and intervention. Our findings indicate that there are considerable opportunities for better use of the nursing and other patient care staff in the delivery of clinical services. Developing a collaborative practice model should include formalizing expectations of staff to reflect training and experience, and explicitly configuring staff to meet the needs, values, and goals of a practice.