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Diary of a Postgraduate: What on Earth is Physician Associate Studies?!

I’m now four weeks into my postgraduate studies and I’m absolutely loving it; I have made some great new friends and learned more in those four weeks than I thought was possible. One thing that has caught me off guard though is when people ask me:

“What on Earth is Physician Associate Studies?!”

At first my response was somewhere along the lines of “well, it’s kind of like a shortened medical degree where you end up somewhere between a nurse and a doctor” or “it’s a new course where you’re a bit like a doctor who doesn’t prescribe medication”. The truth was that I honestly didn’t know how exactly to explain the profession, or what content I would be taught over the two years. However, I’m sure you’ll be pleased to hear that I now have a better understanding!

diary of a postgraduate
The toughest part of the course so far: The team building exercise!


To understand what physician associate studies entails, let’s first look at what a physician associate is. Since physician associates are a very recent development within the NHS, there are still ongoing talks about which body we will be regulated by, what exactly we can and can’t do, and how the role will develop over time. At the moment, PAs are defined as follows:

A new healthcare professional who, while not a doctor, works to the medical model, with the attitudes, skills and knowledge base to deliver holistic care and treatment within the general medical and/or general practice team under defined levels of supervision.” – Department of Health, 2012

A little vague isn’t it? So what do PAs actually do? At the moment, they can take medical histories, perform a range of medical examinations, order and interpret certain test results, and diagnose and manage certain conditions.

PAs are not restricted to working in one healthcare setting; they can choose which specialty they’d like to go into, whether that’s general practice or a more specialist area such as obstetrics or neurology. The idea of the PA role is that they are a stable presence in their department, so while nurses and junior doctors may rotate to different areas, the PA will stay put.

However, since PAs have to take a recertification exam every six years, their general medical knowledge has to be kept up to date and there is nothing stopping them from switching specialty should they wish to do so.

postgraduate diary
One of my favourite activities so far: We were given patient histories before looking at their cultures (blood, sputum, skin swabs) under the microscope to distinguish what bugs were present, what the diagnosis is and which antibiotic (if any) we would choose for treatment

In terms of training, PA students will usually have completed a life-science degree or an unrelated degree plus hands-on experience in a caring role. My background is in psychology but my peers come from a variety of backgrounds: nursing, medical biochemistry and even law! This mixture of backgrounds is great as we can help each other out with different aspects of the course – I might help my friend with the law degree master the anatomy of the brain, while she may use her experience as a healthcare support worker to help me with my clinical skills.

The course itself spans over two years, and at Swansea University, teaching is split into four week blocks based on body systems.

We started with an induction fortnight where we covered pharmacology, haematology, microbiology, antibiotics and interpreting biochemistry results. The first body systems block, which we are now half way through, is the cardiovascular block (they really threw us in at the deep end!).

For each block, the lectures cover physiology and pathology of the relevant body system, while the interactive sessions involve learning the associated clinical skills and anatomy. For example, the cardiovascular block includes lectures on blood pressure, diseases of the heart muscle, heart valves and electrical signalling of the heart; the clinical skills classes cover cardiovascular examination, taking blood pressure and CPR, and anatomy classes cover the heart and vasculature. This kind of teaching is different to anything I’ve done before and, while intense, I find that I’m learning a huge amount in a short space of time.

postgraduate diary
Just a couple of weeks into the course and we were being taught how to insert tubes to open up a patient's airway!

To help consolidate and apply what we learn in class, we also go out on placement. At the moment I’m spending one day a fortnight at a GP surgery where I am able to see patients, take histories and learn from GPs, nurses, pharmacists and health visitors.

Later in my first year I will start to go into hospitals for a few weeks at a time, and by the second year of the course, I will spend the vast majority of my time on placement. The course requires that, in order to qualify as a PA, students must spend 1600 hours on placement, which must cover general practise, emergency medicine, mental health, paediatrics, obstetrics and gynaecology, general medicine and general surgery. I’m currently approximately 7 hours into that 1600 hours placement time, but I’m very excited for the remaining 1593!

To find out more about what physician associates do and how to become one, visit the Faculty of Physician Associates website

Until next time,


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