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Researchers urge caution over rise in non-medical clinical roles in GP practices

Published: 22 August 2022

Professionals other than GPs are increasingly treating patients in general practice settings, a new NIHR-funded study finds. 

The analysis of 6,296 English general practices between 2015 and 2019 is the most detailed to date, exploring the impact on delivery and patients’ experience of healthcare, with the introduction of new roles including social prescribers, clinical pharmacists, paramedics and physician associates.

The University of Manchester-led study, published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, is a response to the growing trend for professionals other than GPs to be involved in treating patients in general practice settings. 

The move has been proposed by the NHS as a solution to critically low numbers of GPs and nurses. Until now, evidence of its impact on practice outcomes has been limited.

Using national data, the study explores the statistical relationship between the workforce composition and ten indicators of accessibility, clinical effectiveness, user experiences and health system costs.

The researchers grouped roles into four categories: GPs, nurses, healthcare professionals (HP) and healthcare associate professionals (HAP).

Healthcare professionals included clinical pharmacists, physiotherapists, physician associates, paramedics, podiatrists, counsellors, and occupational therapists. 

The health associate professional group included dispensers, health care assistants, nurse associates, pharmacy technicians, psychological well-being practitioners and social prescribing link workers.

The study showed that employment increased over time for all the staff groups, with largest increases for Healthcare Professionals - from an average of 0.04 full time equivalent (FTE) per practice in 2015 to 0.28 in 2019. 

The smallest increase was observed for nurses, who experienced a 3.5 percent growth.

The employment of more staff in traditional primary care roles, such as GPs and nurses, was positively associated with changes in practice activity and outcomes. 

Patient satisfaction with primary care services showed a negative trend over the study period. The study found this drop in satisfaction to be larger in practices that had employed more HPs. 

On average, a one FTE increase in HP staff employed at GP practices was associated with a 2.4 percent drop in overall patient satisfaction which is roughly equivalent in magnitude to the overall decrease observed between 2015 and 2019.

Similarly, a one FTE increase in HP was associated with a 1.3 percent drop in patient satisfaction with making an appointment, about a quarter of the overall decrease of 7.2 percent.

However, pharmacists contributed positively towards some tasks, improving the quality of medicine prescription and reducing the burden of these activities for existing staff.

Lead author Dr Igor Francetic said: “The introduction of new roles to support GPs does not have straightforward effects on service quality or patient satisfaction.

“In fact we provide substantial evidence of detrimental effects on patient satisfaction when some Health Professionals and Healthcare Associate Professionals are employed. Patient satisfaction is a crucial dimension of quality of care, as it contributes to individuals’ willingness to seek care through GPs.”

The study was funded by the NIHR Health and Social Care Delivery Research (HSDR) Programme. 

Find out more about the study on the NIHR Funding & Awards website.

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