Should I employ a physician associate?
Ministers want 1,000 physician associates in primary care by 2020. Three experts explain what they do
Q Why is the Government promoting physician associates (PAs)?
There won’t be enough GPs even if the Government meets its commitment of 5,000 extra by 2020. Practices who have found physician associates a valuable resource have often employed them because they couldn’t find GPs.
Q What is covered in PA training?
The course is a two-year intensive postgraduate diploma in physician associate studies, with an equal balance of theory and clinical work. The course teaches adult medicine, mental health, obstetrics and gynaecology and paediatrics. PAs learn to see patients in much the same way as doctors do, but as ‘dependent practitioners’, working under doctors’ supervision. Students become proficient in history taking, examination, forming a differential diagnosis and initiating investigations and management plans. Training is shared between hospitals and GPs as it is with medics, and the national framework sets a minimum 180 hours in GP practices. Most entrants to PA training programmes already have either a bioscience degree such as human biology, or a health science degree, such as nursing. Most courses are not funded, with fees costing £9,000 a year, though a small number of trusts and local NHS bodies (for instance, Health Education North West) offer funding.
Q What is the standard PA qualification?
The qualification for entry into the managed voluntary register is a postgraduate diploma.
Q Is there a statutory professional body?
A There is currently no statutory professional body or regulator. The Faculty of PAs at the Royal College of Physicians is lobbying the Government for independent regulation. In the meantime, there is a managed voluntary register held by the RCP, which employers are encouraged to insist upon; this confirms a PA has passed a UK or US PA programme, has passed the national examination, has maintained CPD and has passed the recertification examination every six years.
Q How much do PAs get paid?
The majority are paid around £30-£35k per year. Don’t believe the £50k hype: this is part of a temporary fix to recruit experienced US PAs on short-term contracts.
Q What are their working and supervision arrangements?
Every PA must have a named clinical supervisor that is either a consultant or a GP. This doctor doesn’t necessarily have to be present, but must be available if needed. The supervision required depends on the experience of the PA, and how well the supervising doctor knows them, but it is likely that for an experienced PA, ‘review rates’ would be under 10%. Recent UK research on same-day appointments found PAs saw two patients for every three the GP saw.
Q What tasks can they typically take on? What can they not do?
PAs work in a similar way to doctors, seeing patients, examining, advising, organising follow-ups or investigations. The scope of practice is determined by their supervising doctor. They cannot prescribe or order X-rays, though they can ‘propose’, as nurses without prescribing rights can. In future they could become formally regulated and acquire limited prescribing abilities.
Q What will their indemnity be? Who is responsible for it?
PAs can get indemnity in the same way GPs do, costing as little as £1,129 per year from Medical and Dental Defence Union of Scotland but increasing depending on levels of responsibility and experience. PAs are responsible for ensuring they have indemnity to work and employers are responsible for ensuring clinicians are appropriately covered. Responsibility for paying is up for negotiation.
Q How can I employ a PA?
There are around 250 qualified PAs working in the UK. GPs can seek PAs through the Faculty of PAs at the RCP, but the best option may be to get involved in training.
Professor Jim Parle is professor of primary care at the University of Birmingham, chair of the UK and Ireland Board for PA education, and a GP in Northfield, Birmingham
Professor Martin Roland is professor of health services research at the University of Cambridge
Sam Cryer is director of communications at the Faculty of Physician Associates and a physician associate in London