5 August 2017
Dr Ayman Shenouda
Often a really good policy solution will in turn place more pressure on a part of the health system it relies. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing and is usually indicative of good policy spend. It is sometimes an outcome of optimal policy coverage as is the case for disease screening measures. The National Bowel Cancer Screening program, introduced in 2006, is an example of a policy working well.
We know that one in 12 Australians will develop bowel cancer by the age of 85 which makes it the second most common cause of cancer-related death in Australia after lung cancer. But, if detected and treated early the cure rate is around 90% which makes policy intervention through prevention and in this case, through screening measures, so vitally important. [i]
The is a great policy intervention which we’ve seen expanded under successive governments with broad coverage now currently available to Australians aged 50, 55, 60,64, 70, 72 and 74. Once fully implemented by 2020, all Australians aged 50 to 74 will be able to be screened every two years.[ii]
But as a result of this policy, we’ve seen demand increase for lower gastrointestinal endoscopies. This growth in demand means there is a need for the endoscopic workforce in Australia to be well planned in order to cope with future demand associated with expanded cancer screening, particularly with an ageing population. Service solutions to address current demand including nurse endoscopists are now being rolled out in Queensland and Victoria. But is this the right workforce response for Australia or is it more of a temporary fix to a growing system issue?
Here’s the policy background to the issue. The policy response to limited endoscopy capacity a few years ago saw the now defunct Health Workforce Australia (HWA) invest in a project to train nurses to perform endoscopic procedures. Expanding the scope of practice of health professionals was a typical policy response being keenly pursued at that time by HWA. This particular decision though saw unprecedented action with a policy preference to train non-medical endoscopists and build capacity from within nursing.
At the time, the medical press reported that doctors were calling for a moratorium on nurse endoscopy.[iii] From a resource perspective, it is important to also note that this was a decision undertaken within the broader context of increased medical graduates coming through and claims of impending oversupply.
The Advanced Practice in Endoscopy Nursing (APEN) program was modelled on approaches elsewhere including in the UK where the nurse endoscopist was well established. Although nurse endoscopy training and delivery of endoscopic services is not a new policy response: the first report of nurse endoscopy in the US was more than 35 years ago for flexible sigmoidoscopy.[iv] But I think it is important to work through policy alternatives for Australia particularly if one solution has limitations both in terms of efficacy and coverage.
The University of Wollongong evaluation of the HWA-funded APEN sub-project in 2014 highlighted some key points in terms of the validity of a nurse-led model as a workforce solution.
Firstly, it stated that one of the main drivers for the program was the need to respond to growing demand for lower gastrointestinal endoscopies arising from bowel screening. However, it also stated that only about a quarter of same-day colonoscopies are performed in public hospitals. A key detail that severely limits the ability of nurse endoscopists to meet this growing demand. The evaluation also stated that given full implementation was not achieved, that relative advantage in terms of effectiveness and cost effectiveness of the model could not be evaluated and could only be measured after trainees were qualified and working at full capacity. [v]
The Australian Medical Association of Queensland (AMAQ) in commenting on the Queensland roll out of nurse model to Cairns and Townsville, stated that medical endoscopists were more cost effective than nurses as surgery could be performed at the time of procedure.[vi]
Cost-effectiveness of the nurse-led model as a workforce solution has also been challenged in a study published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology in 2015. The study examined the available evidence on safety, competency and cost-effectiveness of nursing staff providing gastrointestinal (GI) endoscopy services. The study concluded that the empirical evidence that supports non-physician endoscopists is limited to strictly supervised roles in larger metropolitan settings and mainly flexible sigmoidoscopy and upper endoscopy for asymptomatic or low complexity patients. [vii]
This same study also stated that contrary to general beliefs, endoscopic services provided by nurse endoscopists are not more cost effective compared to standard service models due largely to the increased need for subsequent endoscopies, specialist follow-up and primary care consultations. It stated that studies measuring cognitive competency were limited and providing endoscopic services is more than mastering the technical skills required to safely advance the scope. Further, that making clinical decisions in the context of the patient’s full clinical picture is critical to delivering efficient and meaningful services.[viii]
In finding an effective solution, the most obvious question for me in terms of utilising the available workforce is around why we are not looking to general practice to address excess demand? Some of the pressure placed on endoscopy units in managing this increased demand can certainly be addressed by general practitioners.
General practice offers a particularly viable solution for rural communities in endoscopy. Keeping trained procedural GPs in rural areas should be made a priority and this is a good example of where support is needed to sustain local solutions where rural GPs fill a service gap like this. Access to diagnostic endoscopy is limited in rural and remote areas and service expansion by GPs provides significant patient benefits in terms of time and costs.
While savings including around reduced costly patient transfers are obvious to most, the investment in GP procedural practice where it offers a sustainable service model should be sufficient for policy makers. It would help to reduce the demand placed on regional tertiary services and could help make GP procedural practice more viable in the smaller towns. We know that rural GP proceduralists must be supported to consolidate their skills in the communities they serve and this is one service solution which can help realise this aim. It is a workforce solution that needs to be considered.
[i] Cancer Council Australia. Position Statement. Bowel Cancer. Available from: http://www.cancer.org.au/policy-and-advocacy/position-statements/bowel-cancer.html
[iii] Australian Doctor. Doctors call for moratorium on nurse endoscopy. 30 January, 2015. Available from: https://www.australiandoctor.com.au/news/latest-news/nurses-expand-scope-into-endoscopy
[iv] Spencer RJ, Ready RL. Utilization of nurse endoscopists for sigmoidoscopic examinations. Dis Colon Rectum. 1977;20:94–96. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/844404
[v] Thompson C, Williams K, Morris D, Lago L, Quinsey K, Kobel C, Andersen P, Eckermann S, Gordon R and Masso (2014) HWA Expanded Scopes of Practice Program Evaluation: Advanced Practice in Endoscopy Nursing Sub-Project Final Report. Centre for Health Service Development, Australian Health Services Research Institute, University of Wollongong. Available from: http://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1384&context=ahsri
[vi] ABC News. More gastroenterologists needed rather than using nurse endoscopists in hsopitals, AMAQ says. 18 Apr 2016. Available from: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-04-18/amaq-more-gastroenterologists-rather-than-nurse-endoscopists-qld/7336202
[vii] Stephens M, Hourigan LF, Appleyard M, et al. Non-physician endoscopists: A systematic review. World Journal of Gastroenterology : WJG. 2015;21(16):5056-5071. doi:10.3748/wjg.v21.i16.5056. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4408481/