Could super nurses make up for the shortfall in doctors?

'Nurse practitioners' and 'physician associates' were roles created in the US to make up for a shortfall in doctors. Now the NHS is encouraging their use

Roger Watson
Thursday 13 April 2017 13:07

You may not be aware that in the NHS there are people with roles that are like doctors and nurses, but they are neither. Depending on your view, these people can be either “super nurses” or “sub-doctors”. But do they work?

A recent review of research compared these “substitute doctor” roles with doctors in the long-term care of older people. The results showed that they are better than doctors at improving the health of patients, preventing secondary complications and seeing care through to completion.

They are equally as good as doctors at preventing deaths, prescribing drugs and doing physical examinations. They are also cheaper. This is important as more older people spend their final years in long-term care, which is expensive and health service resources are scarce.

The two main substitute doctor roles are “nurse practitioners” and “physician associates”. They are different but have very similar roles in assisting or even substituting doctors. Nurse practitioners are registered nurses with advanced training in diagnosis and treatment. Physician associates are science graduates with similar advanced training.

Super nurses are just as good as doctors at prescribing drugs

An American import

As with most of these advanced roles, nurse practitioners and physician associates started in the US. America introduced the nurse practitioner role in the 1940s; they were trained in areas like midwifery and anaesthetics where they could work independently. Physician associates emerged in the 1960s and their role was designed to assist doctors directly with examining patients and prescribing drugs. The two roles have spread across the world and nurse practitioners now exist in over 50 countries, while physician associates exist in over ten.

Nurse practitioners can perform many of the tasks of doctors and are generally well accepted in advanced roles by doctors. But less is known about the new physician associate roles and some doctors are worried. The role is recognised as one that can assist doctors but replacing doctors is another matter.

The lack of professional registration, which helps to define a role, is one worry. It leads to a fluid role which could be used to undermine the role of the doctor and take away training opportunities for junior doctors. Other than that, physician associates lack many of the skills needed to work independently or unsupervised.

Registration and regulation

Nurse practitioners – who have several titles – have existed for over 20 years in the UK and since this is not a registerable profession, the exact numbers are not known. Nevertheless, there are many hundreds working in the UK.

Physician associates have only existed in the UK for about ten years and the government wants to increase their numbers. This is also not a registerable qualification and exact numbers are not known. But in 2014 there were around 200 in the UK with plans to increase that and more than double the number of training places from 100 to 225. The fact that recent research shows that they can be successfully used to replace doctors is good news for the government and universities that provide these courses.

The future for substitute doctors in the UK looks very good. Funding issues in the NHS probably make them a necessity. The evidence that they are effective in at least one important role – the long-term care of the elderly – and often better and cheaper than doctors will surely encourage more growth in training places and numbers in the NHS.

One issue remains for both nurse practitioners and physician associates and that is regulation. Being a nurse practitioner is what is known as a “recordable qualification” and nurse practitioners can choose to do this with the Nursing and Midwifery Council.

Of course, all nurse practitioners are registered nurses and must keep that status to work as nurse practitioners. For physician associates, there is the Faculty of Physician Associates at the Royal College of Physicians of London. Registering with them is encouraged but not compulsory.

Proper registration and regulation of substitute physician roles will increase confidence in them and lead to wider acceptance. It is doubtful that patients will turn up at doctors’ surgeries and ask to see a substitute physician. But soon, it is likely that this is who they will see.

Roger Watson is a professor of nursing at the University of Hull. This article first appeared on The Conversation (

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