NHS patient groups warn more doctor assistants may be ‘healthcare on cheap’

Physician associates will have two years of intensive training, as opposed to seven years completed by fully fledged doctors


  • theguardian.com,
  • The NHS physician associates will provide support for the diagnosis and management of patients. Photograph: Christopher Thomond

    The government is launching a recruitment drive to hire more doctors‘ assistants to try to help take pressure off a straining NHS under plans announced on Thursday.

    The physician associates will have two years of intensive training instead of the seven completed by doctors, and will provide support in the diagnosis and management of patients in hospitals.

    But patients’ groups have warned that it could result in healthcare being provided “on the cheap” and that patients would not be able to tell the difference between who was a doctor and who was not.

    Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, said: “The NHS is treating record numbers of people. That’s why we are growing the workforce further with a new class of medic so busy doctors have more time to care for patients.

    “I hope this will give a generation of talented graduates a gateway into medicine so they can contribute to our world-leading NHS. It will also give NHS staff a new route for career development.”

    The British Medical Association warned that the new posts could not replace doctors. The chairman of the BMA council, Mark Porter said that although the concept could be useful if done properly, the government needed to be clear about its limits, the Times reported.

    “Only doctors can provide certain types of care, so the government needs to ensure that standards won’t be affected by these changes and the quality of patient care will be protected,” he said.

    Katherine Murphy, the chief executive of the Patients Association, told the newspaper: “We are concerned that, as physician assistants are cheaper to recruit and pay, hospitals managers may become reliant upon them to bring up staff numbers on their wards. We have previously expressed our concern about the use of healthcare assistants in place of registered nurses, and it would appear that the medical profession is now heading down a similar path.”

    There are currently only around 200 physician associates working for the NHS and the Department of Health believes they are having little impact on doctors’ workloads. It said it was hoping to significantly increase the number on wards.

    The department said the number of training places available was due to more than double from 105 to 225, but was unable to say how many new physician associates would be drafted in, because their recruitment was down to individual hospitals.