News, Workforce

BMA survey finds widespread concern among doctors over role of physician associates


The BMA calls for immediate pause to recruitment into Medical Associate Professional (MAP) roles and to limit the scope of MAP roles to administrative and low-risk clinical tasks.

A majority of doctors have expressed concern that physician associates (PAs) and anaesthesia associates (AAs) are undertaking tasks beyond their competence, according to a new survey from the BMA.

In the survey of more than 19,000 doctors, nearly 80 per cent reported concerns that MAPs were “occasionally or frequently” working on tasks for which they are underqualified, with 87 per cent believing that the current rules pose a risk to patient safety, some or all of the time.

A majority of doctors also believe that working with PAs and AAs has increased their workloads, according to the survey. Only 21 per cent of respondents reported a decrease in their workloads since the employment of MAPs, while more 55 per cent reported that their workload had instead increased.

Professor Phil Banfield, BMA Chair of Council, said: “NHS England tells us that ‘Physician Associates support doctors in the diagnosis and management of patients,’ supposedly giving doctors more time to deliver the high-quality care only they can give.

“But the reality appears to be the exact opposite – too many doctors are telling us that working with PAs is instead draining their time and energy. The responsibility for signing off prescriptions and ensuring the PAs are working within their proper scope of practice quite rightly falls on the supervising doctor, but also those doctors working alongside them; as scope has inappropriately crept ever further it has made far more work for doctors than it has saved.

86 per cent of doctors also reported concern that the role of MAPs, and the difference between MAPs and fully qualified doctors, is not well understood by the public, and that many patients may wrongly assume they are being seen by a fully trained doctor. 80 per cent said they would support the change of terminology from Associates to ‘Assistants’, as they were known until 2013.

The House of Lords is expected to consider this week the Anaesthesia Associates and Physician Associates Order 2024 statutory instrument, which if passed, will see the GMC appointed as regulator of MAPs. 72 per cent of respondents to the BMA survey expressed their opposition to the move. The BMA itself has called for all legislators to oppose the Order, arguing instead that regulation of MAPs should fall to the Health Care and Professions Council.

Liberal Democrat Peer, Baroness Sal Brinton, has tabled a motion of regret outlining concerns about the regulation of MAPs falling under the remit of the GMC, as well as about the nomenclature applied to MAPs, which the motion states “risks confusion for patients”.

Professor Phil Banfield added: “The House of Lords will soon have a chance to oppose damaging legislation that aids that blurring of lines by regulating PAs under the GMC, the doctors’ regulator rather than the more appropriate Health and Care Professions Council.

“The Government and NHSE should be instead ensuring that PAs return to their original purpose of supporting, not replacing doctors, so that doctors can get on with utilising the diagnostic and treatment skills they have spent so long at medical school gaining their expertise in.  Their scope should be strictly defined and, to ensure patients are not confused, the title returned to the more accurate “physician assistant” – then they can play their valuable role in supporting the delivery of NHS care safely.”

The BMA has made the following recommendations:

  • There should be an immediate halt to the recruitment of Medical Associate Professionals (MAPs) in the UK, including PAs and AAs on the grounds of patient safety (as called for by the BMA in November 2023). Long term expansion plans for the roles must be paused.
  • All legislators must oppose the Anaesthesia Associates and Physicians Associate Order 2024. The House of the Lords must vote against it in the days ahead. MAPs should be regulated by the Health Care and Professions Council, as called for by the BMA in response to the original DHSC consultation on regulation in 2017.
  • The titles should revert to physician assistant and physician assistant (anaesthesia) / anaesthesia assistant to avoid public confusion.
  • The scope of the roles should be strictly limited to the original intention of supporting doctors with administration tasks and a defined range of low-risk clinical tasks.
  • The UK has a severe shortage of doctors. This should be urgently addressed by fully funding increased specialty training places and opening Additional Roles Reimbursement Scheme (ARRS) funding to GP recruitment.
  • Training opportunities for doctors must be protected. Doctors and medical students should be prioritised for all clinical and training opportunities. This means that within a department/practice any procedure, clinic opportunity, or other structured learning event must be offered to doctors first before being offered to non-doctor staff.  The training of physician associates and anaesthesia associates must not compromise the training of current or future doctors
  • MAPs should not be utilised on any level of doctor rota or perform, train in, or consent to invasive or life-threatening procedures. They should not be receiving any specialty referrals or be in roles requiring them to give specialty advice. They should not make unsupervised treatment decisions or management plans. They must work under direct on-site supervision at a level commensurate with their qualification and not be using on-the-job experience to work beyond their formal level of qualification.