This site is intended for health professionals only

NHS to spend £15m on training 1,000 GP physician associates by 2020

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s commitment to recruit 1,000 physician associates to work in general practice is set to cost more than £15m.

Graduates will each receive £9,000 in annual course fees for the two-year postgraduate course and £6,000 as a maintenance bursary working out, at today’s prices, as over £31,000 per physician associate.

To fully train 1,000 new recruits in five years will mean £15.7m being spent on training physician associates for general practice alone. And although every course offers placement with GPs, Pulse has learnt there are no strings attached to say they have to work in general practice after graduating.

To meet Mr Hunt’s commitment, Health Education England commissioned 657 training places in 2016/17, an increase of 220% on the previous year, and there are now 28 courses offering physician associate studies compared to two four years ago.

The figures were revealed following a parliamentary written question by House of Commons Health Committee chair Dr Sarah Wollaston, a former GP, who asked how much funding was being provided to cover their training.

Department of Health minister of state Philip Dunne replied: ’The total funding provided by Health Education England for the training of physician associate students for each programme supported is:

  • £15,655 per student per year; and;
  • £31,310 per student over the duration of the two year course.’

He added that, on average, this covered £2,156 in clinical placement costs, £7,310 in tuition fees and £6,189 maintenance.

HEE told Pulse that the £15,655 figure was the average training cost, and there are ‘different local arrangements’ for funding tuition bursaries, placements and salary costs.

A spokesperson said HEE is ’currently exploring how we can move towards a more consistent approach to payment’.

They added: ‘We are pleased there is a real appetite for expanding the PA programme, there are 28 courses now compared to two four years ago. This illustrates how the work HEE has done with partners, local NHS trusts and primary care providers has helped to stimulate interest in the profession.

‘We plan to complete the work on future funding arrangements in the new year.’

GPC deputy chair Dr Richard Vautrey said physician associates may add value, especially at a time of  GP shortages and ‘incredible pressure’ on local services.

But he added: ‘However, the current allocated funding for the PA training and education programme will need to be followed by significant further investment in the near future.

‘This will enable GP practices to both recruit and embed PAs into their services and create a significant expansion in the number of PAs within general practice.’

He also highlighted that ‘many of the PAs currently in training are likely to go straight in to hospital posts rather than GP services’.

He said that therefore ‘if the target of recruiting 1,000 PAs in the next few years is to be achieved NHS England will need to work quickly and closely with the BMA, the RCGP, the RCP and other major stakeholders to ensure infrastructure is established and resources reach frontline primary care services without delay’.

Jeremy Hunt pledged in 2015 that the 5,000 additional doctors he has pledged will be working in general practice would be complemented by 5,000 other health professionals, including 1,000 physician associates.

What is a physician associate?

To train as a physician associate in the UK you will usually need a bioscience first degree, or have worked as a registered healthcare professional. They will eventually be able to work independently, but under the supervision of a qualified doctor.

Once qualified they can take patient histories, see patients with undifferentiated symptoms and formulate management plans or request investigations – except those requiring ionising radiation.

However, because they are ‘dependent practitioners’ they will need a GP supervisor who can support them and will review and sign-off their work.

They are a relatively new role in the UK, and do not currently have any formal regulatory body or prescribing powers, however the Government is considering both of these.