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Brexit delaying calls to regulate physician associates

Brexit could lead to delays in regulating ‘physician associates’ – the non-medically qualified assistants promoted by the Government as a way to alleviate the general practice recruitment crisis – despite pressure from the GMC and education bosses to prioritise this.

The Faculty of Physician Associates (FPA) has said that ‘political instability’, including the UK leaving the EU and the fallout from the  junior doctors strikes, is likely to ‘slow progress’ towards regulation.

The health secretary announced this week that consultations on regulating physician associates would start next year, despite previously telling Pulse that regulatory models were being tested this summer.

Jeremy Hunt pledged 1,000 physician associates would be working in general practice by 2020 as part of his ‘new deal’ drive to expand the non-GP workforce.

Pulse has also shown the DH is considering adding prescribing powers to their responsibilities alongside history taking, differential diagnosis and initiating investigations management plans.

Currently the FPW, part of the Royal College of Physicians, operates a voluntary register that physician associates can opt to join, and which the GMC has said the DH is in favour of expanding.

But both Health Education England and the GMC have said they want to role to have statutory regulation to give the NHS ‘a degree of certainty’ in their capabilities.

In a blog this month, recently elected president of the Faculty of Physician Associates, Jeannie Watkins, wrote ‘we are clear [regulation] needs to be a priority’ despite external pressures.

She said: ‘We continue to lobby for regulation of the profession. Health Education England, the Department of Health and the Regulators are working together to build the case for statutory regulation.’

‘This however comes at a time of political instability with Brexit and what that will mean for the NHS and its workforce, the workforce crisis, the junior doctors struggle and an overhaul of regulation in general. We are clear that this needs to be a priority for a number of reasons but fear that some of the external factors may slow progress down.

Mr Hunt announced in a speech at the NHS Providers Annual Conference this week: ‘There is a real appetite for physician associate roles in the NHS and with this comes the issue of regulation of such groups.’

‘I am therefore keen to consider this in earnest and will be consulting on the issue early next year to establish whether, as happens in other countries where the role exists, physician associates should be regulated.’

The DH told Pulse in July that, alongside the Professional Standards Agency, they will be ‘testing possible approaches with Physician Associates over the summer.’

It said it would then ‘provide advice to Ministers on whether there is an evidence base for regulation.’