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Physician associates may be given prescribing powers, says DH

Exclusive The Government is considering whether physician associates should be given prescribing powers as part of its ‘new deal’ to relieve the pressures on GPs, Pulse has learnt.

The Department of Health has told Pulse this was one of ‘a range of issues’ it was considering ahead of recruiting 1,000 new physician associates to work in practices by 2020.

Jeremy Hunt promised the physician associates as part of a plan to recruit 5,000 new practice support staff over the next five years.

Giving them prescribing powers would add to their working role – as currently listed by NHS Careers – that includes taking medical histories; performing examinations; diagnosing illnesses; analysing test results and developing management plans.

But GP leaders have warned that adding prescribing to this list is unlikely to make much difference to the ongoing workforce crisis.

Mr Hunt recently watered down his committment before the election to recruit 5,000 more GPs saying that this was ‘a maximum’, but a Department of Health spokesperson told Pulse it was pressing ahead with plans for 1,000 more physician associates.

He said: ‘Together with NHS England and Health Education England we are considering how to ensure 1,000 physician associates will be available to work in general practice by September 2020. A range of issues and possible solutions have to be considered, including prescribing responsibilities and whether and how they need to be regulated.’

Physician associates are currently science graduates who have completed a two-year training course, however, it is not mandatory for them to be officially registered.

Research from Kingston University and St George’s University of London this year claimed that physician associates can take on some of GPs’ daily work without any harm to patients and at lesser cost to the NHS.

But Family Doctor Association chair Dr Peter Swinyard, a GP in Swindon, warned offering them prescribing powers could result in a ‘real deception pulled on the public’ if they thought they were seeing a medically qualified member of staff.

He added: ‘If they can also prescribe then we have even more of the potential mismatch of what people think they are getting and what they actually are getting.’

GPC prescribing lead Dr Andrew Green said he supported ‘in general’ the extension of prescribing rights, when used responsibly.

He added: ‘However it would be a nonsense to suggest that the promise of 1,000 PAs in five years, even with prescribing rights, will make any difference to the crisis we are in right now. The underlying reasons must be addressed as to why today’s young doctors are not becoming GPs. Improving skill-mix within primary care might help, but people can forget how difficult it is to do our job well, and complex and undifferentiated care needs the most highly trained professionals available.’

Amid the Government drive to boost numbers, Sheffield Hallam University will become the 10th institution to provide the course from January next year and last week Royal College of Physicians launched a new arm, the Faculty of Physician Associates, especially for the staff grade.

Meanwhile, NHS Leicester City CCG is spending £600,000 on bringing over ten US-trained physician associates to work in local GP practices, in a bid to address its recruitment crisis.