I have become increasingly dismayed by reports of dermatologists who allow their nurse practitioners and physician assistants to practice independently.

That is, the employing dermatologists only see the patients, new or established, if they are asked to, and often are not even on the premises. In fact, they might be thousands of miles away.

A little background is in order. Physician assistants and nurse practitioners are formally trained in primary care, not in dermatology, although there are currently three 1-year programs to help them specialize in dermatology. When Congress authorized their independent payment in 1997, they envisioned primary care nurses traveling the hills, hollers, and inner cities improving health care. Unfortunately, this hasn’t happened, and instead they have moved into suburban America, and increasingly, are practicing specialty medicine.

It can be argued that decreased access to primary care, which was the reason midlevels were created, is more important than is access to dermatology. In particular, extenders have targeted office-based specialties such as dermatology, but also neurology and pain medicine. These specialties are office based, and credentialing by hospitals is not required to bill insurance plans. Also, these specialties have good-paying, seemingly simple, small procedures. They have accomplished this with the avid help of dermatologists, I might add. There will be an estimated 10,000 “dermatology” nurse practitioners and physician assistants next year.

Let me be clear: I am not opposed to a dermatology extender who works closely with a dermatologist and does intake histories and physicals, then staffs with the physician, assists with surgery, or sees routine follow-ups (think acne, psoriasis, atopy, suture removal, and warts) on an established protocol with the full knowledge of the patient.

This is not what we are seeing. We have nurse practitioners buying retiring dermatologists’ practices, physician assistants independently setting up remote clinics then hiring “supervising” dermatologists to visit once a week to sign and review charts, and independent “dermatology” clinics with a doctor thousands of miles away available, if really needed, by telephone or the Internet. (This is not really telemedicine, is it?) These extenders are listed as dermatologists on the Internet, or they hide behind the name of a dermatologist, and when you call their offices, and ask if you will see a “real” dermatologist, the answer is often “Oh, don’t worry, our nurse or PA specializes in dermatology.”

I think this is grossly unfair to patients, who, when they call the dermatology center listed on the Internet, can’t conceive that their dermatology appointment is not being made with a dermatologist, not even being made with a physician, but with a nurse practitioner or physician assistant! I also think it does a huge disservice to the specialty. The “collaborating” dermatologists enabling these extenders are renting out the good name of our specialty.

Patients seen by these extenders may also be subject to unnecessary biopsies. (If you don’t know what it is, you must biopsy it!) It also results in additional charges for pathology and additional medical misadventures.

In addition, I think it is unfair to the extender who is put in this situation. They may have worked in a dermatologist’s office for a few months or even years but are now being asked to pretend to be something they are not and being expected to perform at the level of a medical professional who has had many years of intense, focused training in dermatology. If they are not uncomfortable being thrust into this situation, then they are delusional.

I think it is unfair to the medical system who pays for the less informed opinion and unnecessary procedures. This is not a “good value” except to the rent-seeking dermatologists, who are the front men for this money-making deception.

This is an elephant in the room of dermatology, and I think we have to confront it. This trivializes our specialty and helps allow other specialties and regulatory agencies to ignore or exclude us from the networks and from the conversation. Unfortunately, many of our members and some of our leadership have been corrupted by the “easy money” or “easy time” afforded by this cheapening of the specialty.

Let me give you some examples. The rent seekers piously claim, “there is a shortage of dermatologists, and we are just trying to help save the world.” They also say “my nurses are special and great.”

The honest ones in private practice, however, say, “Man, I make $200,000 a year off my PA while I am off.” The honest academics say, “Listen, I work in a gulag, and I would never be able to travel if my nurses didn’t see my patients.” Time is money, and the academic who gets an extra 10 hours a week out of clinic is benefiting as much as the guy who makes $200,000 a year.

Of course, this situation is not sustainable and will become less viable because of a coming tsunami of malpractice claims, more focused insurer benchmarks revealing excessive test ordering and minor procedures, and patients getting wise. One obvious solution to this would be to reimburse extenders only for evaluation and management codes, which will take a change in law.

Meanwhile, I encourage all of you who feel the same nausea I do to ask candidates for your state and national dermatology organizations if they employ unsupervised extenders. Then check their website for the names of the extenders they employ. Then go to the Medicare data and look up their extenders and see if they bill independently for dermatologic procedures. I think you will be very disturbed, as I was and am.

I hope this stimulates a little self-examination among dermatologists.

Dr. Coldiron is a past-president of the American Academy of Dermatology. He is currently in private practice but maintains a clinical assistant professorship at the University of Cincinnati. He cares for patients, teaches medical students and residents, and has several active clinical research projects. Dr. Coldiron is the author of more than 80 scientific letters, papers, and several book chapters, and he speaks frequently on a variety of topics. Reach him at dermnews@frontlinemedcom.com .

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