Physician Associates and Me

Disclaimer: my opinions are as always, a work in progress – but then again why would it be any other way? 

I have lots of concerns about the National Physician Associate Expansion Programme (NPAEP). Sadly, I have no faith in the government’s plan for our NHS (#showusthe7dayplan). I don’t even believe that the intentions of the NPAEP are necessarily honourable….are the government just clutching at straws for a short-term and cheaper fix to the staffing problems in the NHS? Do they have the best interests of the NHS workforce as a whole in mind? Is this actually what they believe is best for patient care? I can’t answer any of these questions. But when it comes down to it, I go to work each day to care for patients on an individual basis. My job, unlike Jeremy Hunt does not involve standing up on a soap box and making sweeping statements about what patient’s should have and what staff should not. I care for the patients on front of me…and I can’t do this without a multidisciplinary team, nor would I want to.

This post is about my personal journey with Physician Associates (PAs)

When I first started working with PAs I was a CT1 in medicine. I arrived to a district general hospital which I hadn’t been to since my medical student days and I felt vulnerable. I had that heart sinking dread of not knowing whether the nurses would ‘like’ me or if my consultant was the supportive kind or the pop-in every so often kind. I didn’t quite know what was expected of me and I had never even heard of PAs, I had no introduction from the hospital as to who they were or what they were about. I knew that they weren’t doctors. I was incredibly confused about whether their supervision was my responsibility or the consultant’s and I had no idea what was within their competencies. To add to this mix, the PAs were fixed entities. They knew the hospital and it’s quirks. They didn’t have to struggle to figure out how MRIs were requested or what that hospital’s guidelines were, they already had working relationships with the consultants, they could use the IT systems and their passwords all worked. In short, it felt like they had the upper-hand.

As the weeks progressed, I remained uncomfortable. The PA I worked with seemed perfectly competent but when she came and asked me to sign her fluid prescriptions I honestly felt suspicious. This was my GMC number… I supposed to go and re-review this patient? Was it going to create conflict if I asked her to explain her clinical decisions to me in detail?

Of course, everything is clearer with hindsight, but I can honestly say that the more senior I got the better the role ‘sat’ with me. There wasn’t a eureka moment where my attitude shifted, but when I look back on this time I realise that a lot of what I felt in those first few months was about me and where things stood with my professional development. Looking back now……

  • Junior doctor training breeds insecurity: we are constantly moving and constantly forced to anticipate our need for validation from other staff (multi-consultant reports, TAB/MSF assessments….). To add fuel to this fire we often feel victimised by media and this situation is not at all helped by the current climate of DDRB induced uncertainty. I felt vulnerable. I was unsure of myself and so I felt defensive; this was nothing to do with the PA I worked with.
  • Anticipating conflict when it comes to scrutinising everything a PA asks me to sign is not the same as there actually being conflict. It was perfectly ok for me to ask a PA to explain themselves in this context. I have to be honest and say that there were times when one specific PA I worked with seemed to resent this, but I got on with it and did what was right for the patient; team work in the NHS is full of potential for uncomfortable exchanges; whether it’s between a midwife and an obstetrician, nurse specialist and an SpR or a PA and an SHO. There really was no reason to carry any chip around on my shoulder in relation to this member of the team specifically.
  • It was ok for me not to completely trust in the PA in the beginning. Trust requires a relationship and once I started to make an effort to cultivate working relationships with individual PAs, rather than having everything overshadowed by my skepticism about the profession, things became a whole lot easier.

A consultant at that hospital told me ‘every member of a team is useful, that is what the NHS is all about’ – now I know that is a fairly broad statement, which many will pass off as a platitude, but for some reason it struck a cord.

Every member of the team is useful.

I know my own coming to terms with the PA role doesn’t answer lots of questions about where things are heading for the NHS. So yes, there are several things that for me remain topical:

  • I strongly believe that PAs require mandatory regulation and licensing. Patients depend on the NHS to be as sure as they can that the care they are offering is in the very least safe. For this to happen there needs to be appropriate licensing. I have yet to meet a PA who does not feel the exact same.
  • I believe that a significant number of PAs would serve the NHS, and their potential, much better if they spent two more years at university and got a postgraduate medical qualification. I can’t help feeling that investment to create more home-grown doctors would be a better option for the NHS as a whole. But it would be more expensive, astronomically more so…..and can we afford it?
  • I don’t feel like the potential of PAs will be adequately met in the long-term. I feel their lack of scope for progression means we may find PAs pushing into roles which are not necessarily appropriate. You simply can’t stop an engaged, hard working PA who has spent years in the NHS from acquiring extremely valuable high-level skills within the context of healthcare delivery. I don’t believe that this fact has been adequately thought through or planned for. This view may of course just be coloured by the fact that as a junior doctor who is constantly aspiring to be a senior doctor at the top of my profession, I struggle to comprehend the mindset of wanting to be in a job which such limited progression. this makes me skeptical, but of course does not necessarily make me right. There are after all lots of perfectly satisfied people in the world working jobs with similar limited avenues for progression.
  • I am apprehensive about why PAs should need prescribing rights. I don’t understand where this fits within the context of their role and how that would make their value different from that of a doctor. I think this issue in particular requires more open dialogue so that if prescribing rights are granted, doctors feel secure with the situation. Doctors need to be able to ask questions and have them answered honestly…after all, this is a new role within our ranks – why would we already understand it? Of course we have questions.

The bottom line is, I have delivered high quality care to my patients with the help of PAs…and they did not ‘replace’ any doctors at that hospital.  That is my experience. Can I say I have liked every single PA I have worked with in the last two years? Of course not. But then I wouldn’t say that about every doctor, nurse, health care attendant or ward-clerk either.


One thought on “Physician Associates and Me

  1. Dr. Abbey- I am a physician assistant working in Seattle, WA, and am hoping to be a part of the group of Physician Assistants that can come to work in England under the NPAEP. I would like to help doctors as well as all team members understand that PA’s can make a huge positive impact on both the patient and other provider’s lives . I very much appreciate what you had to say about working with PA’s in this post, and I am hopeful that my decision to up root my family and bring them to England will be good for everyone involved.

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