Leading doctors launch legal action over physician associates after Salford woman died

-Credit: (Image: WalesOnline/Rob Browne)
-Credit: (Image: WalesOnline/Rob Browne)

Top doctors are set to launch legal action against the medical regulator after growing concerns over the use of physician associates.

The British Medical Association (BMA) said it is taking action over the use of PAs - who only have basic-level medical training and aren't qualified doctors - “before it leads to more unintended patient harm”.

It comes after the death of Emily Chesterton, originally from Salford, who was misdiagnosed by a PA on two occasions. An inquest concluded that the physician associate should have sent Emily to a hospital emergency unit, and that if she had been treated, likely would have survived.

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The 30-year-old had been under the impression that she was seeing a GP, but was actually seen twice by a PA who failed on both occasions to spot that her leg pain and breathlessness was a blood clot, which ultimately travelled to her lungs.

Leading medics have called for a halt of the recruitment of physician associates while concerns are addressed. From December 2024, the GMC will become the regulator for physician associates and anaesthesia associates – known as Medical Associate Professions (MAPs).

Emily Chesterton -Credit:Lily Barnes
Emily Chesterton -Credit:Lily Barnes

Professor Philip Banfield, chairman of the council at the BMA, told the union’s annual meeting in Belfast: “Today I want to announce that we are taking legal action against the GMC.

“We’re taking this action because of the dangerous blurring of the lines between doctors and MAPs specifically with challenging their frankly unsafe use of the term ‘medical professionals’ when they’re referring to people who are not doctors.

“This legal action is supported by our colleagues, the grassroots movement Anaesthetists United who will be pursuing a complimentary legal challenge.

“We have had enough of the Government and the NHS leadership eroding our profession. We are standing up for both doctors and patients to block this ill thought through project before it leads to more unintended patient harm.

“It’s not too late to row back from this uncontrolled experiment in dumbing down the medical skills and expertise available to our patients.”

The BMA has previously argued that the GMC is not the right regulator for MAPs, arguing that the move will “undermine and devalue” the medical profession while confusing patients.

In the BMA’s letter for action, it states that it is seeking to challenge the GMC’s decision to apply its central guidance for doctors – Good Medical Practice – equally to physician associates and anaesthesia associates once they are regulated by the GMC.

The BMA is also contesting the GMC’s use of the term “medical professionals” as a collective description for doctors, physician associates and anaesthesia associates.

The BMA is launching a judicial review claim against the GMC over its use of this term, which it says should only ever be used to refer to qualified doctors.

Professor Banfield later added: “PAs are not doctors, and we have seen the tragic consequences of what happens when this is not made clear to patients.

“Everyone has the right to know who the healthcare professional they are seeing is and what they are qualified to do – and crucially, not to do.

“Doctors are ‘the medical profession’. To describe any other staff as medical professionals not only undermines doctors and the rigorous training journey they have been on, but also confuses patients, who rightly associate the two terms as one and the same.

“The central and solemn responsibility of the GMC is to protect the public from those who are not registered qualified doctors, pretending to be doctors.

“It has become increasingly clear that broadening the term ‘medical professionals’ to include those without medical degrees has had the effect of making this task far harder, when recent experience has now shown that this represents a dangerous blurring of this critical distinction.”

Dr Richard Marks, co-founder of Anaesthetists United, added: “Doctors and their patients are united over their opposition to the outgoing Government’s plans for replacing doctors with Associates. Taking legal action seems to be the only way forward.”