Physician Associates (PA), as the name suggests, are not medical-qualified doctors. Instead, they assist doctors in tasks such as physical examinations, analysis of test results, and performing of minor procedures such as skin cancer and tumor removal. Currently, the National Health Service (NHS) is struggling to hire and retain doctors, and a survey conducted in December found 84% of GPs thought working pressures were unmanageable and extreme.

NHS bosses believe one way to ease this burden would be to train and hire PAs. There are currently 300 working in the NHS; but, projections from the Royal College of Physicians show that by 2020 – 3,000 will be qualified and 1,000 will graduate each year after that.

This dramatic increase in numbers is because the NHS has been urging more universities to provide the qualification. A two-year post-graduate degree, it is open to anyone with a life-sciences or health-related degree such as anatomy, biomedical science, healthcare science, medical engineering or nursing.

The idea is that they will help reduce waiting times and provide continuity of care, particularly in emergency care – one of the departments that struggles the most. The chief executive of the NHS, Simon Stevens has indicated that patients may have to wait longer than the recommended 18 weeks for non-urgent procedures, such as hip replacements.

The move has been rife with criticism

Joyce Robins, director of Patient Concern, said of the higher levels of recruitment of PAs: “It sounds very much to me like doctors on the cheap. I am really rather knocked back by it. Of course, doctors are overrun at the moment; but, this is worrying, and I think patients will be concerned.”

Other critics say that PA’s lack of experience could put patients at risk. Despite the concerns though, one study has found that they are just as competent as GPs at diagnosing and caring for patients who do not have complex medical problems.

NHS bosses say PAs can be entrusted with younger patients freeing up GPs' time to deal with the elderly, who usually have more serious, long-term illnesses. Jeannie Watkins, President of the Faculty of Physician Associates, said, 'their training in addition to medical theory, includes clinical placements – where they have significant time with patients, supervised by doctors, to gain experience.”

There are many areas in which the NHS needs help with

Although the government has pledged to increase GP numbers by 5,000 by 2020, experts claim waiting times will continue to rise – reaching three weeks in five years. The health service has also clamped down on fees for agency medics to prevent undermining hardworking full-time staff.

The population is both growing and aging and current young doctors are seeking a better work-life balance and early retirement. Additionally, funding is expected to drop by £330m over the next three years.

Andrew Pepper, chair of the NHS Clinical said, "Additional funding will help with this and we are calling on the government to ensure that the money promised in the lead up to the election is to be allocated into CCG’s (Clinical Commissioning Groups) budgets sooner rather than later.” MIMS

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