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CCG to recruit physician associates from USA to address GP shortages

A 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.

NHS Leicester City CCG said the move comes in response to the city’s shortage of GPs and because many of the current GPs are set to retire over the next few years.

The £600,000 investment will pay the salaries of the physician associates for the first three years, with individual practices to pick up costs themselves the next two years, the Leicester Mercury reported.

The CCG recently said it is considering abandoning its pilot scheme giving ‘golden hellos’ worth £20,000 to new GPs who agree to work in the city after it failed to attract enough candidates.

The associates are being recruited by Health Education England East Midlands and will receive training on the UK primary care system, the CCG said.

It comes after Health Education England announced it was to commission hundreds of new ‘physician associate’ roles to support GPs, as part of a £5bn plan for the coming year.

The CCG said the physician associates will not be able to prescribe but they ‘will be able to take on a substantial amount’ of clinical work now being done by GPs’.

CCG chair Professor Azhar Farooqi told Pulse the CCG decided on the groundbreaking move after realising that the workforce shortage problem ‘is not about to diminish’ due to impending retirements.

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Professor Farooqi said the move to employ the assistants from the US was ‘purely because there are not sufficient physician associates in the UK’, where he said there are ‘only around 250 of them’, whereas from the US there ‘is a ready supply of these staff available to us’.

He said: ‘This will enable GPs to focus on patients that specifically require their particular skills. The physician associate role is also significantly cheaper than a GP, however this is not the primary consideration for us as commissioners; the prime benefit is in enabling us to fill a staffing gap quickly and effectively…

‘Taking into consideration the current demand levels for primary care, the shortage of GPs and the move to seven day working set out by the Government, we need to develop a new model of primary care and deliver differently in order to deliver better.’

But Dr Saqib Anwar, medical secretary of Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland LMC, criticised the plans.

He said: ‘While I accept that physicians assistants could play some role in primary care in the future I think we need to look at this proposal with extreme caution.

‘There is no strong evidence to support their effectiveness in primary care and I remain unconvinced that recruiting a handful of from America and spending over half a million of NHS funding in the process is the best use of a finite NHS budget.’

Relieving GP workload via the recruitment of physician associates also forms part of a Government 10-point plan to resolve the GP workforce crisis.

The RCGP had lobbied the Government to pilot a new similar but different medical assistant role, although some GP leaders have argued that these GP assistant roleswill not work.

Londonwide LMCs chief executive Dr Michelle Drage argued on the Pulse website that physician associates will not be able to work in the UK system, and they will not be able to save practices time.

She said about the Leicester scheme: ‘NHS Leicester CCG needs to ask itself how a supposedly GP-led organisation can prioritise USA-styled solutions to USA problems over the blindingly obvious need to hold on to experienced GPs and nurses providing the style of service Leicester patients deserve.’

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