Intended for healthcare professionals

Student Meet the Multidisciplinary Team

Jeannine Watkins is a physician associate

BMJ 2020; 371 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m3858 (Published 16 October 2020) Cite this as: BMJ 2020;371:m3858
  1. Declan C Murphy, academic foundation year 2 doctor12,
  2. Anna Harvey, BMJ editorial scholar3
  1. 1Institute of Genetic Medicine, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
  2. 2Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK
  3. 3London
  1. Correspondence to: D C Murphy murphy.declan.1994{at}gmail.com

Jeannine Watkins, a physician associate in London, explains what her job involves

What is a physician associate anyway?

Physician associates are healthcare professionals who are trained as medical generalists. The role was first introduced in the United Kingdom in 2003, with the first UK physician associates graduating in 2007.

“Our main role is to support the medical team and redistribute the workload to improve team flexibility, skill mix, and patient care,” says Watkins, continuing, “we enable the workload to be shared appropriately within the team and help to ensure that healthcare professionals are involved in relevant tasks related to their clinical competency and experience.”

And how are physician associates different from doctors?

Physician associates provide continuity in a clinical area where junior doctors often rotate for training. “We bring stability to the team,” says Watkins. The benefit of a physician associate to a team is that they are a generalist even when working in a specialty area.

Physician associates are currently more limited clinically than doctors. “We are limited by our inability to prescribe medication or ionising radiation,” states Watkins, although this might change with future legislation.

What jobs might you do on a daily basis?

Physician associates take a history from patients, examine them, can request most investigations, arrive at a diagnosis or differential diagnosis, and propose a management plan,” says Watkins. They can also perform procedures such as taking blood and minor surgeries. The exact role of a physician associate depends on the clinical area in which they work.

What kind of training is needed to do all that?

Physician associates must gain an undergraduate degree in a science or health related subject before undertaking physician associate education. The physician associate programme then takes two years of study, which involves both theory and practical work.

“You must be self-motivated to study and work as a physician associate,” Watkins says. Students must pass university assessments and a national examination to qualify and work as a physician associate.

Physician associates must remain motivated after graduation and continue to learn as medicine advances. As with other healthcare professionals, physician associates complete continuing professional development every year after they have qualified.

What’s the best bit about being a physician associate?

Thanks to generalist training, the variety of work a physician associate can do is wide. Watkins says: “We can work in many different clinical settings, with a broad range of healthcare professionals and see patients with a wide spectrum of disease.”

Similar to doctors and nurses, physician associates also have the opportunity to specialise in a certain area. The training Watkins has had is high quality: “You feel invested in. You receive great mentorship from senior doctors and have the opportunity to progress your career.” Specialised training can be done while working as a generalist, making the work of a physician associate flexible.

And what frustrations do you have?

Just like other professions within the NHS, underfunding and understaffing is a problem for physician associates.Working in the NHS has its frustrations, particularly trying to juggle high quality care provision with inadequate resources to meet demand,” Watkins says.

Challenges specific to physician associates include lack of knowledge about what the role entails among the public and other healthcare professionals. It can be difficult to explain to patients and other professionals what a physician associate is and how they function and fit into a team. “This is tricky,” Watkins says, “especially as the job title is a relatively new one in the UK.” She continues, “With persistence and time, people will become accustomed to our role.”

What ideas about physician associates need to disappear?

“That physician associates are all going to train to become doctors eventually,” says Watkins. “The decision to become a physician associate is down to personal choice and circumstance as it is for anyone choosing a professional role in healthcare. It opens up another route for the provision of medical care to patients that is unique and valuable in its own right. The physician associate profession provides an opportunity for innovative disruption and challenging of the status quo. It also provides a clearly defined and trained group of medical generalists to work within and support the medical team to deliver excellent patient care.”

Footnotes

  • Competing interests: None.

  • Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.

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