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Working with a Physician Assistant

Published: 23 September, 2014

There is a lot of talk about recruiting Physician Assistants (also known as Physician Associates). It is a familiar narrative –  general practice is delivering more care and practices are under pressure.

Employing different types of staff in response to changing needs is one solution. Physician assistants are one such type of staff. They are trained in a medical model over 2 years at postgraduate level and work under a supervising doctor.

It is only right we stop and ask what contribution they can make? Are PAs “acceptable”? and crucially, do they provide safe care?   A team led by Vari Drennan, Investigating the contribution of physician assistants to primary care in England, funded by the National Institute for Health Research, set out to answer these questions. In summary, they found that PAs were working to complement the GPs, seeing patients with less complex and medically acute problems.

Physician Assistants were mainly:

  • deployed to provide same-day appointments for patients
  • acceptable to professional groups, patients and health-care and workforce planners – although patients wanted to ensure that they had choice in who to consult
  • Consultations with PAs were longer than those with GPs
  • Consultations with PAs cost the health service less
  • A clinical review of PA records and consultations judged them competent and safe
  • There was no difference between PAs and GPs in the rate of patients returning with the same problem within 2 weeks

The study concluded that “PAs are an asset in primary care and could offer a flexible addition to the staffing. This has implications both for health professional workforce and education planning and for the inclusion of PAs in regulatory processes.”

A plain English version of the study findings is available.

Sue Lacey-Bryant 


Last updated: 21 May, 2018

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