MPs push forward with plan to fill our NHS with fake doctors, sorry ‘physician associates’. Are they mad?

18 January 2024, 13:20 | Updated: 18 January 2024, 13:22

MPs push forward with plan to fill our NHS with fake doctors. Are they mad?
MPs push forward with plan to fill our NHS with fake doctors. Are they mad? Picture: Alamy/LBC

By James Perkins

When was the last time politicians made life easier for doctors?

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Doctors are being told to work harder, for longer, for less. So what’s the solution MPs have come up with? Foist upon them under-qualified ‘physician associates’ who create more work for them and, insultingly, often get paid more.

We've now marked another step in the wrong direction, as MPs waved through a credibility-boosting vote to muddle the distinction between fully qualified doctors and physician associates.

I’ll try and explain the problem with what I call ‘fake doctors’ in simple terms.

Imagine you work in an office.

Your team has shrunk due to budget cuts so you’re taking on more responsibility all the time. You haven’t had a raise in years. Your boss (who changes every few months and has no experience working in an office) tells you they’ve got the solution.

They’re going to hire you an assistant.

Sound good? Unfortunately, the assistant is only qualified to answer phone calls and do data entry - and they have to do it under your supervision.

On top of that they have a habit of going rogue and independently calling meetings with clients and losing accounts.

Oh yeah, and they’re going to be paid ten grand more.

Under the NHS Long Term Plan, 10,000 of these assistants will be hired for you.

But this isn’t an office job. They’re not photocopying the wrong document - they’re killing people.

30-year-old Emily Chesterton died after suffering a pulmonary embolism. A fake doctor said it was anxiety.

25-year-old Ben Peters died from a heart haemorrhage. A fake doctor said it was a panic attack.

69-year-old Peter Marshall died of bowel cancer. A fake doctor said it was IBS.

So why would MPs vote to further embed them within the NHS? Because in principle, the idea makes sense. Many doctors would have initially met the concept with cautious optimism.

An extra pair of hands to help take notes or chase up the lab? Great! But in reality, they’ve gone rogue and are being used as a substitute for real doctors, not a complement to them.

Today’s vote ‘approved the regulation’ of physician associates by the GMC. On the surface, this sounds like a positive. These fake doctors are currently unregulated and so face little responsibility for their mistakes. This vote changes that.

But the BMA insists that making the doctors’ regulator responsible for PAs will ‘blur the lines’ between fake doctors and real ones.

This, they argue, will make it harder for patients to know if they’re being treated by a fully qualified medical professional or a glorified cosplayer.

I can understand their objection. In the three tragic cases mentioned above, all three thought they were being treated by a doctor.

The more pressing problem, in my view, is that this decision further embeds PAs within the health service. The government currently plans to inject 10,000 more of them into the health service by 2030.

So in a few years’ time, you could have a 1 in 40 chance of going to hospital and being treated by someone armed with a two-year degree in ‘physician associate studies’. Not the tried-and-tested five-year degree in medicine.

This plan needs to be reversed (or at least reformed) - not entrenched. The physician associate experiment has failed.

Now, much like a PA, I’ve not got a medical degree. But you don’t need a medical degree to know this isn’t working. Speak to literally any doctor.

87% believe PAs are a danger to patient safety. They are not saying this for fun. They are not saying this because PAs keep stealing sandwiches from the communal fridge.

They’re saying this because physician associates (and anaesthesia associates) are a detriment to the health service.

They’re not its saviour, as Rishi Sunak seemed to intimate to LBC back in August.

Rishi Sunak endorses anaesthesia associates

Being fair to the MPs making this decision, it’s a niche subject that most are unfamiliar with. But they must stop busying themselves with trivial nonsense, educate themselves, and fix some of the real problems facing the country.

Politicians must, for once, listen to doctors. If you’re not going to pay them properly, at least stop making their jobs more difficult.


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