Will ‘physician associates’ impact patient care?

physician associate

‘Doctor assistant’ style roles set to double

The NHS wishes to speedily expand the number of people hired as ‘physician associates’, a role that can be defined as a doctor’s assistant.

Usually science graduates who have previously worked as nurses or paramedics, the associates undergo an additional two years of intensive training. Tasks performed by a physician associate include taking a patient’s history, making a simple diagnosis or doing an examination, however they cannot prescribe drugs, order x-rays or work without a doctor’s supervision. Assistants have been working in this style of role for the past decade with around 200 currently employed by the NHS.

Despite the Department of Health stating that physician associates allow busy doctors to spend more time with their patients, some concerns have been raised that these more junior roles will be used to replace more expensive and experienced doctors, which could potentially damage patient care.


At the moment, there are 105 physician associate training places on courses in Aberdeen, Birmingham and London. The government wants this to be doubled to 225 places, expanding to locations such as Plymouth, Wolverhampton and Worcester.

The Patients Association has raised concerns that hospitals will become more reliant on physician associates because they are paid less. Dr Mark Porter, who chairs the British Medical Association council, told BBC News “Physician assistants can be a valued part of the NHS and, as long as the scope of what they do is clear, they can provide an intermediate level of care and help reduce workload pressures. Only doctors can provide certain types of care so the government needs to ensure that standards won’t be affected by these changes.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Health said “There are already physician associates in the NHS, supporting busy doctors to spend more time with patients, not replace them. They can carry out clearly defined duties, but have to be under strict supervision of a doctor at all times. Many physician associates will already be trained physiotherapists, nurses or paramedics, and will have two years of intensive training on top of that.”