Helena Pozniak
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The job prospects of physician associate postgrads could not be better

The Guardian

Any student who completes a sought-after course to become a physician associate (PA) is in the happy position of knowing they’ll almost certainly get a job; the few UK courses can’t produce staff fast enough. “PAs have so many job options at the moment,” says Kate Bascombe, a physiology graduate who qualified as a PA in 2011 and is now working at St George’s Hospital in Tooting, London. She helps on ward rounds, assists in operating theatre and runs her own clinic within the ear, nose and throat department.

Now in its sixth year, the two-year postgraduate diploma in PA studies at St George’s, University of London boasts a 90% employment record within three months. Last year, some 135 PA jobs were advertised for 35 St George’s postgraduates. Currently only two other courses operate in the UK – at the Universities of Aberdeen and Birmingham, although a few more medical schools plan to offer the qualification next year.

A PA’s role is relatively little known in the UK, where 190 work in the health service alongside doctors – in both hospitals and GP surgeries. PAs are able to take medical histories, perform physical examinations, analyse tests, diagnose illnesses and in some cases perform minor surgery. “They do roughly 80% of what their supervisor (consultant or GP) might do,” says Karen Roberts, a PA herself who leads the St George’s course, which is taught by qualified doctors and PAs. “The flexibility is really appealing”. Unlike doctors, PAs can switch between medical specialism – for example, from mental health to obstetrics and gynaecology or to accident and emergency.

“Surveys in the US show that PAs tend to be more satisfied with their jobs than doctors,” says Roberts. And while the flexibility appealed to Bascombe, so did the option to remain put and build her expertise. “I know how everything works here; I didn’t want to do a full medical course for reasons of lifestyle, time and money. And I didn’t want to be moving around the country as junior doctors have to.”

But the diploma costs £18,000 and is so intense – 45 weeks a year and nine to five – that working while studying is not advised. “I took a career development loan,” says Chandran Louis, a human biology graduate who is in his second year of the course and relishing the clinical work in hospitals.

Applicants – and there are five for every one of St George’s 24 places – need a degree in life sciences and ideally some healthcare experience. Students need to hit the ground running, says Roberts. “It’s incredibly intense,” agrees Louis. First year students balance training with placements at a GP practice, while the second year is almost exclusively spent in hospital rotations, with top up sessions at the university. “Our students tend to be dedicated and enthusiastic,” says Roberts. “Just to see how the course has blossomed is fantastic.”

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