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At the heart of general practice since 1960

Short-handed GMC failing to hit complaints targets

US-style physician assistants can do the 'majority' of GPs' work and could alleviate the workforce crisis, a major study has concluded.

The evaluation of pilot programmes in the West Midlands found physician assistants were able to deal with most patients on their own.

Patients also viewed them as an 'acceptable substitute for additional GPs'.

The Government wants to roll out the £50,000-a-year positions across the UK and has already given the go-ahead for courses to train assistants.

Around 55,000 physician assistants work in America. They are able to diagnose and treat 'acute' patients without referring to a GP after just two years' postgraduate training.

But UK GPs warned that physician assistants ­ also known as physician practitioners ­ did not have their diagnostic skills and could never replace them.

The research, by the University of Birmingham health services management centre, found that physician assistants' caseload was smaller than GPs' and their consultations longer.

But they were cost-effective because of the overlap with the conditions treated by GPs, and the fact they can cover for practice nurses and do home visits and administrative work.

Author Juliet Woodin, senior fellow at the HSMC, said physician assistants consulted GPs infrequently and usually on issues of NHS protocol rather than clinical problems.

She said: 'In terms of dealing with what comes through the door on a daily basis untriaged the assistants were able to deal with most patients on their own.'

Dr Laurence Buckman, GPC deputy chair, warned primary care would be 'deprofessionalised' if too many physician assistants were used. 'They are trained to act on instructions, not to diagnose.'

By Ian Cameron

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