Beware the Risks of Associate Physicians in the NHS.

While the majority of healthcare professionals in the NHS are highly skilled and dedicated, there is growing concern about the role of physician associates within the NHS, and the risks they pose to patient safety.

The role of physician associates is relatively "new" in England and Wales, although the first physician associate roles were formally introduced in 2003 in the NHS.

Physician associates support doctors in the diagnosis and management of patients. They typically work in general practice in GP surgeries, but also can be found in hospital in acute medicine and emergency medicine. They often work under the supervision of fully qualified consultants and are involved in various clinical activities, including:

  • taking medical histories from patients
  • performing physical examinations
  • diagnosing illnesses
  • seeing patients with long-term chronic conditions
  • performing diagnostic and therapeutic procedures
  • analysing test results
  • developing management plans
  • providing health promotion and disease prevention advice for patients.

Physician associates undergo medical training for two years, but do not have the same level of experience and expertise as consultants. This can sometimes lead to gaps in knowledge or judgment, which can increase the likelihood of medical errors occurring.

One of the primary risks associated with associate physicians is the potential for mistakes to occur due to their limited experience and supervision. These mistakes can range from misdiagnoses and medication errors to procedural complications. In some cases, these errors can have serious consequences for patients, leading to prolonged illness, disability, or even death.

A recent high profile example occurred in 2022 when actress Emily Chesterton died after being misdiagnosed twice by a physician associate who misdiagnosed her as suffering from a sprained ankle, when in fact she had suffered a pulmonary embolism. She subsequently collapsed and sadly died.

Physician associates also face challenges in managing complex cases or identifying rare medical conditions due to their lack of experience. This can result in delays in diagnosis and treatment, which can exacerbate patients’ conditions and lead to poorer outcomes.

While it is essential to recognise the valuable role that physician associates play within the NHS, it is also crucial for patients to take precautions to minimise the risks associated with their care. Patients should feel empowered to ask questions about their treatment plans, seek second opinions if necessary, and ensure that they fully understand any medications or procedures prescribed to them by the physician associate. Additionally, healthcare institutions must prioritise adequate supervision and support for physician associates to help mitigate the risks of errors occurring, and ensuring that robust systems are in place for reviewing and addressing any adverse events that occur.

If you have suffered a poor or adverse outcome due to a physician associate and wish to have free and confidential advice, you can contact our specialist team of clinical negligence lawyers.

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