Innovative physician associate course transforming healthcare workforce

Ulster University, in collaboration with the Health and Social Care Trusts, is supporting the vital transformation of Northern Ireland’s healthcare system through its innovative new healthcare postgraduate course that, in a significant investment, will now be fully funded by the Department of Health.

The Physician Associate Postgraduate Diploma, founded by Professor Tara Moore, is the first of its kind in Northern Ireland and gives graduates with life sciences and healthcare related degrees the opportunity to specialise in this new, rapidly growing, high demand healthcare role, which is beginning to be established in all spheres of the healthcare system across the UK and Ireland.

Physician Associates (PAs) are healthcare professionals who support doctors in the diagnosis and management of patients in hospital or through GP-led services, reflecting the vital role of the wider primary care teams in improving population health and wellbeing.

Up to 20 funded places will be available at Ulster University’s Coleraine campus from January 2018, highlighting the value placed on the role of Physician Associates in shaping the future of our health service and demonstrating the commitment of the University and the Department to strengthening and enhancing the healthcare workforce in this way.

Launched in 2017, the two-year full-time programme offers intensive evidence based teaching and hands-on workplace training to fully equip students with the skills and knowledge required to support doctors in the diagnosis and management of patients.

It is delivered in partnership with multiple Primary Care Medical Centres and across all the Health and Social Care (HSC) Trusts in Northern Ireland.

Collaboration between the Health and Social Care system and academia was a central outcome of Professor Bengoa’s report “Systems, Not Structures” and responds to Health and Wellbeing Strategy 2026: Delivering Together.

Professor Paddy Nixon, Vice-Chancellor Ulster University, stated:

“The University plays a critical role in the development of our healthcare system, not least through high quality education provision that contributes to its transformation through partnership working.

“Building on our reputation for excellence in life and health sciences, this innovative course is a tangible contribution to the 10-year vision, outlined in Delivering Together, to transform the current system and ultimately, to improving health outcomes for patients.

“This postgraduate course meets an area of very pressing need in our communities. Coupled with the University’s ambitious plans to develop our graduate entry medical school in the North West, this demonstrates our commitment to the health of our communities.

“The Department of Health support for the Ulster University Physician Associate course is a welcome investment in patient outcomes through  education, and in our ability to develop the highly skilled staff who are at the heart of the health service.”

Throughout the UK, the role of Physician Associates is rapidly growing within the NHS and is currently in high demand nationwide. The introduction of these new posts for Northern Ireland is providing a positive impact on local healthcare provision, allowing graduates to play a pivotal role in improving patient access to medical services and delivering cost-effective care.

Lindsay Nelson, a student on the Physician Associate course, explained:

“It is extremely exciting to be training as one of the first PAs in Northern Ireland; it is a privilege to lead the way, with the aim of benefitting patients individually and healthcare as a whole.

“Access to the clinical environment and patients has not only been critical in developing my skills as a member of the clinical team but has also allowed me to further appreciate how important PAs will be within our healthcare system.”

The Physician Associate programme will create an annual stream of highly trained health professionals who will complement duties traditionally performed by doctors, allowing doctors to focus on more complex patient needs.

Dr Tony Stevens, Chief Executive, Northern Health and Social Care Trust, added:

“This is an exciting and innovative development. Physician Associates will make a valuable contribution to healthcare in Northern Ireland.

“They offer us a new resource when dealing with our well recognised staffing shortages. PAs will allow us to build more resilient clinical teams in both our hospitals and in primary care.”

Jeannie Watkins, President of PAs with Royal College of Physicians, also stated:

“The Faculty of Physician Associates welcomes the news from Ulster University regarding significant investment from the Department of Health in Northern Ireland in the Physician Associate profession.

“We hope that this will enable the profession to be embedded and flourish, providing new avenues for graduates into the HSC, and additional capacity for the medical workforce in the delivery of healthcare for the people of Northern Ireland.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Health said:

“We are committed, particularly through the ongoing development of a Workforce Strategy, to ensuring that the HSC has the skills to meet the healthcare needs of the population as we transform the delivery of care across Northern Ireland. As explained in “Delivering Together”, we see the introduction of new roles, such as Physician Associates, as an important step in the further development of the multi-disciplinary, highly skilled healthcare teams of the future.”

For further information on the Physician Associate Postgraduate Diploma course, visit https://www.ulster.ac.uk/courses.