What Union Should Medical Associate Professionals Be In?

Authors: Brocha Goode and Emma Runswick

This is the third of many pieces arising from the BMA’s Annual Representative Meeting 2019, explaining our position on the debates which occurred there.

Motion 108 ARM 2019

At the 2019 BMA ARM, supporters of the Broad Left brought forward a motion that the BMA should unionise Physician Associates (PAs), as well as other Medical Associate Professionals (MAPs), and create a branch of practice for MAPs within the BMA. It fell, save for the last part where the RB agreed to work with ‘groups’ representing PAs and MAPs in the future for the benefit of all. The main arguments against consisted of keeping the BMA a doctors’ union, and not wanting to ‘water down’ the role of the BMA in protecting the rights of doctors. Why did supporters of the Broad Left bring this motion forward?

Physician Associates and other Medical Associate Professionals

The role of the Physician Associate was created recently by the UK government as a potential solution to the workforce crisis created by the Modernising Medical Careers programme, which reduced the numbers of middle-grade doctors. University training programmes for PAs run across the UK, and they will soon join medical rotas in large numbers. We are told that in 10 years there will be 10,000 PAs working in the NHS. The role is ill-defined, but includes assessing patients, requesting investigations and creating management plans.

There is no specific trade union for PAs.

Other MAPs exist in smaller numbers in Surgery, Anaesthetics and Critical Care. Some groups have no direct entry, drawing only on highly qualified and experienced nurses. The Advanced Critical Care Practitioners are one such group. Some of these groups already have representation, many do not.

The Problem – We all need a union

It is important to separate the question of unionisation from your feelings about MAPs. It is no longer important whether you support or oppose PAs or MAPs as a concept. Individual interactions with PAs or other MAPs are irrelevant to the issue at hand. PAs exist.

They are workers. They are our colleagues. They are valued members of the Multi-Disciplinary Team. The concept of a PA comes from the USA, where it is a well-defined role separate to that of a doctor. In the UK, however, this is not the case – their roles often overlap with tasks traditionally performed by doctors. Their training, though shorter, is so similar that students share clinical skills sign-offs with medical students. NHS England has decided that their role is so similar to F1s that from August, PAs will be placed on some F1 tracks and rotas.

The current implementation of PAs by NHS managers and Universities has the potential for competition and conflict. We are already seeing concerns about training opportunities and worry about the poor differentiation of our roles by both professions. The position of the PA is also open to abuse. A person in a fluid role can be asked to take on more responsibility than they are trained or paid for. PAs have not yet been given prescribing rights or professional registration, yet they are asked to make management plans for patients. Doctors, who hold professional registration, must then ‘supervise’ and take the legal responsibility for these plans, without additional time. This situation is bad for PAs, for doctors, and for patients.

Misplaced resentment is growing between the professions, but these problems were not created by PAs. These problems were created by the poor definition of their role and poor implementation – these are problems created by the government and managers and the fault lies with them. Without representation by a strong established union, PAs may find themselves mistreated and exploited to the detriment of themselves, doctors and patients.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) as a Model

Similar issues were raised by nurses when Healthcare Assistants, and more recently Nursing Associates, were introduced. The Royal College of Nursing, the trade union and professional association for nurses, decided that the smartest way to deal with these issues was not to argue worker vs worker, but to fight together as union vs government. The RCN recruited these new staff groups into their union and won proper definition of those new roles. This ensured that Nursing Associates could not be asked to take on responsibility that they weren’t trained for and protected the role of the Registered Nurse.

The RCN recruit and organise Nursing Associates and Healthcare Assistants without accepting that the roles are equivalent to that of a Registered Nurse. The RCN maintains its role as a trade union and as a professional association whilst accepting members that do not have professional registration.

We should look at the RCN as a model. They know that division causes weakness, and unity gives strength. This strength allowed them to protect all groups of nursing staff. Their common needs as a nursing family trumped their differing qualifications.

Conflict and Commonality – Why the BMA?

In the BMA, we have several existing Branches of Practice with frequently conflicting views. We represent GP Partners and GP Salaried Doctors; Students and Academics; Consultants and Juniors. PAs, like these groups, are in the medical family, just like Nursing Associates are in the nursing family. Royal Colleges have accepted this. The GMC and the government both agree. We have more in common than that which divides us. Where conflicts between Branches of Practice occur, the BMA has systems to resolve that. These could be extended to include our colleagues from other professions.

 We shouldn’t leave PAs and other MAPs to seek piecemeal representation by the general unions operating in the NHS. If there was an existing union with enough MAP members for them to be effectively represented as a group, we would be advocating they join it. MAPs are currently spread across several unions, but mostly go without.

We also shouldn’t wait for years for them to form their own union with a fraction of the strength we have now, after the damage has been done. Asking MAPs to create a new union is a near impossible task and would suck up all their work for the foreseeable future. By the time they were set up and had gained negotiating rights all the big debates would be over, to the detriment of staff and patients. Furthermore, in separate unions, there would be no effective way of managing any conflicting interests between us.

That conflict has the potential to include use of one professional group against the other during industrial disputes. As it stands, PAs are a risk to doctors’ terms and conditions and doctors are a risk to PAs’. Doctors’ pay and PAs’ ability to refuse out-of-hours work could come under attack from management making unfavourable comparisons. Working together, that risk could be eliminated.

Solution

We should seek national recruitment, organisation and bargaining for Physicians Associates and other MAPs through the BMA, so we can work together for agreed and common goals including:

  • High quality training;
  • Professional registration for all members of the clinical workforce;
  • Adequate role differentiation, so one cannot be asked to do the job of the other during rota shortages or union disputes.

For many in the medical profession, this tastes bad. It tastes like an acceptance of medical understaffing, of reduction in training standards. Some argue that unionising MAPs puts the definition of a doctor, or of the BMA, at risk. The BMA was set up to define and defend the role of the registered medical practitioner. Now, the BMA needs to do so again.

How do we work to define our roles as separate on the MDT without working together? How do doctors and MAPs protect their roles and working conditions without the power of a strong well defined and well-funded union? Unionising is the right solution to the issues we face, and the only real solution right now.

The RCN has given us the model. We should be recruiting and unionising PAs. For similar reasons, we should recruit other MAPs, such as Surgical Care Practitioners or Anaesthetic Associates, that don’t have a trade union home. We cannot afford to let this snowball away.

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