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Plan to pump 10,000 fake doctors into the NHS is insane and dangerous, writes James Perkins
16 October 2023, 13:45 | Updated: 16 October 2023, 13:59
You might not have heard of a ‘physician associate’ - and that’s not your fault. They probably won’t tell you. A physician associate walks and talks like a doctor, but they are no replacement for one.
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To become a physician associate you need to complete a two-year postgraduate course or three-year apprenticeship. But despite much less learning than the five years a junior doctor must undergo to be qualified, they are often paid more than them.
Which is why the government’s plan to flood the NHS with 10,000 more of them over the next 15 years doesn’t make any sense. There’s certainly no money-saving aspect. This is simply another corner-cutting exercise to quickly plug gaps in a struggling NHS that will put patients at risk.
Importing the idea from America and asking under-qualified and ill-equipped graduates to make life-saving decisions is, obviously, a bad idea. Getting 10,000 of them to replace actual doctors is a terrible one.
Far from saving doctors work (their original purpose), they often create more. Physician associates are unregulated so cannot be held accountable for their mistakes, meaning doctors must recheck any critical decisions they make. Critical decisions are made quite frequently in hospitals.
But they’re not just overstretching doctors and creating more work; they’re harming patients. A recent Daily Mail investigation has found brain bleeds misdiagnosed as inconsequential headaches and lung disease mistaken for a chest infection.
Doctors say they are “increasingly concerned” by this. Over the summer, hundreds signed an open letter to the Royal College demanding that physician associates (that they insist should be called physician ‘assistants’) stop introducing themselves to patients as doctors. They claim that they are ‘passively permitting themselves to be referred to as doctors’ by patients who see some scrubs or a smart shirt and - understandably - make that assumption.
So until this dangerous plan is scrapped, the next time someone in a hospital tells you “I’m part of the medical team,” it could be a clever lie by omission. The person who’s just diagnosed you might not be a doctor at all. The government must stop cutting corners with the NHS and fill the gaps with the only people properly qualified to: doctors.