CONCERNS have been raised over plans to expand the number of lesser qualified doctors working in the NHS.

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt said the use of more physician associates (PAs) – usually science graduates who have undergone two years of intensive training – will ease the pressure on doctors.

However, patient groups said there is a risk that hospitals will become reliant on employing more PAs, because they are paid less than fully qualified doctors.

Russ McLean, chairman of the Pennine Lancashire Patient Voices Group, said: “This sounds very much to me like a cheap fix, and there’s a danger that patients could suffer as a result.

“The government should instead concentrate on investing more heavily in health services across the board.”

The assistants have already been working in the NHS for the past decade, although only a few hundred are currently employed at the moment.

“Many have previously worked as nurses or paramedics. They can take a patient's history, make a simple diagnosis or do an examination, but cannot prescribe drugs, order X-rays or work without doctor supervision.”

A spokesman for the Department of Health said: "There are already physician associates in the NHS, supporting busy doctors to spend more time with patients, not replace them. They can carry out clearly defined duties, but have to be under strict supervision of a doctor at all times.

"Many physician associates will already be trained physiotherapists, nurses or paramedics, and will have two years of intensive training on top of that."