Can you describe what you do?
As a physician associate in acute medicine, I am a supporting member of the medical team, consulting and assessing patients with acute medical problems, formulating diagnoses and participating in the construction and delivery of management plans.
As a teaching fellow, I am part of a small leadership team responsible for the design and delivery of a Masters in Physician Associate studies, and also provide wider support for the medical school’s bachelor of medicine (MBChB) course and contribute to pedagogical research (research to improve understanding of teaching and learning processes).
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
When I was about eight, I wanted to be a dance and drama teacher, but as I progressed through secondary school, I developed a love for science and became set on a career in healthcare.
My mum was a healthcare assistant, and I loved listening to her talk about working in a hospital and caring for patients, so I applied to medical school planning to become a doctor.
Why did you change direction?
I had an offer for medical school but just missed out on the A-level grades I needed. Heartbroken, I studied health and human sciences and then planned to apply for graduate entry to medicine.
To help fund my studies and gain experience in the healthcare sector, I worked as a part-time healthcare assistant. With that insight from working in the NHS, I concluded that the traditional role of a doctor wasn’t quite the right fit for me – and that was when I first heard of the role of physician associate.
What attracted you to the physician associate role?
It encompasses all the aspects that had attracted me to a career in medicine, but without some of the elements that I found problematic, such as the need to go back to university for at least another four years, and the requirement to move hospitals and geographical location during training.
What 3 factors make you skip into work?
Colleagues, patients, and my students – in other words, the people I get to interact with every day. I have always been very social, the fact that both of my roles are primarily people facing provides me with huge job satisfaction.
Why would you recommend your career to a young person?
Healthcare careers can often be quite rigid, but I have found that being a physician associate offers more flexibility than many other roles. For example, I can work in several specialties, even at the same time – in a previous job I split my week between emergency and acute medicine.
Physician associates can also have some say in their job role, depending on their experience, career aims and the service’s needs. There are also opportunities to progress in fields of leadership, education, and research, as well as clinically, from a relatively early stage.
I have found these opportunities to be the most positive aspect of being a physician associate, as I have created a career that is varied, challenging, and fulfilling while managing to achieve a good work/life balance.
What has been your biggest career disappointment, and what did you learn from it?
After many years aspiring to become a doctor, I found coming to the decision to change my ambition from doctor to physician associate difficult. The aspiration to fulfil my academic potential and train to be a doctor had informed a major part of my identity during my young adult years, so to admit to myself that this wasn’t what I really wanted was confusing and disappointing.
With all healthcare roles, you need to commit 100% to that career and be certain it is the right fit, given the amount of investment you put into training, and a working environment that comes with a lot of challenges and demands.
I have never regretted my decision to change tack, and I would implore anyone to make sure they know what they are committing themselves to before embarking on a particular career path.
What was your best career move?
Going for every opportunity that came my way, even when I thought I wasn’t in with a chance of succeeding. I remember applying for my teaching fellow role and thinking it was a waste of time because I’d be up against many much more experienced candidates.
I’m still surprised I got the role now, but by jumping in and doing my best to ignore my imposter syndrome, I’ve secured myself a permanent career in medical education and a job I love.
If you were an animal, what would you be and why?
Maybe a sheep dog. I’m the designated organiser in my friendship group and pretty good at rounding everyone up for a social occasion. My supervisor at the university says I’m tenacious, so I guess that’s a quality worthy of a sheep dog.
What are the main 3 factors that make you frustrated at work?
IT. It can be a lucky dip if you get a working computer on the acute unit, and if you do it is probably going to take a while to turn on. This is very frustrating.
Limited understanding of the physician associate profession- The acute unit has a high turnover of staff and new staff have often never worked with a physician associate before, so I have to do a lot of explaining around our role and its limitations, and how we fit into the medical team. Many arrive with misconceptions about our role and it can be frustrating to repeatedly explore these ideas and defend your profession. However, I realise how important this is and having open dialogue about people’s concerns is vital if we want to integrate our profession into the fabric of the NHS, and it is satisfying when a colleague becomes an advocate for physician associates following positive experiences working with them.
Lack of regulation of physician associates and prescribing rights. The Faculty of Physician Associates at the Royal College of Physicians has been campaigning for professional regulation of physician associates for years, and the lack of regulation is preventing physician associates from fulfilling their potential. Personally, I feel that regulation and prescribing rights (if approved) would allow me to be a more autonomous practitioner, especially now with several years’ experience. Regulation is also likely to provide more credibility to our profession by ensuring physician associates are held to professional safety standards that provide reassurance to other healthcare professionals and the public.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever got from a patient or work colleague?
The most common advice from my patients is “to not get old, it’s no fun.” Although it isn’t the most practical advice, it is often said with a smile, so it can’t be all bad.
If you could go back in time and give one piece of career advice to your younger self, what would it be?
It’s a cliché, but to trust the process and remember that everything happens for a reason.
If there was one thing you could change about the environment you work in, what would it be and why?
Bureaucracy – it is very a time-consuming part of my job and is further complicated by a mix of paper and digital notes, and multiple clinical systems that don’t talk to each other.
In an ideal world there would be a singular, national digital system used by both primary and secondary care enabling healthcare professionals to access results, notes and letters from other trusts and GPs.
This would reduce duplication of investigations, reduce time trying to contact specialists for their most up to date clinic letter and staff wouldn’t need retraining on clinical systems when they move hospitals.
Do you have any regrets about your career path?
No, I think the opportunities that I have had as a physician associate have allowed me to explore wider interests and skill sets. I do miss the opportunity to be creative, but I think that’s why you need a variety of interests and hobbies, so you can feel fulfilled professionally and recreationally.
Is the thought of retirement a dream or a nightmare – and why?
It’s a long way off. I would say a dream for the purpose of being able to travel without the burden of annual leave requirements, but I also know I would be bored after two weeks.
What do you do to relax/de-stress?
I’m pretty outdoorsy, so anything that involves hiking, camping, or cycling. I’ve also got into DIY and upcycling furniture since buying a Victorian house a couple of years ago and this keeps me occupied for hours.
What is your guiltiest pleasure?
Trash TV, corny music and any programme on interior design.
Where are you happiest and why?
Travelling to some far-flung destination. I am not a sunbathing, chilled holiday kind of a person. Exploring and adventure is more up my street.
Your most treasured possession and why?
Professionally speaking, my stethoscope. I feel like I lend it out at work all the time and I’m always anxious I’m not going to get it back. It’s a beautiful copper and chocolate colour and I’ve kept it in great condition, I think my colleagues have their eye on it because it’s the closest thing to “fashion”’ when your uniform is oversized scrubs.
Becky Saunby studied for her undergraduate degree in health and human sciences and her postgraduate qualification in physician associate studies at the University of Sheffield. She qualified in 2018 and began working at Barnsley Hospital, South Yorkshire, rotating through acute and emergency care. In 2019 she joined Health Education England as a physician associate ambassador for Yorkshire and Humber, with a focus on promoting the profession and supporting employers with recruiting and retaining physician associates.
In 2021 she started a new role as a teaching fellow on the University of Sheffield’s physician associate course, stepping up as acting university teacher over the last year. She also works clinically at Chesterfield Royal Hospital in Derbyshire as an acute medicine physician associate, primarily in their same-day emergency care clinic.