A health assistant for every practice

Every practice in England will have a healthcare assistant (HCA) in the next three years, according to a government-backed working group.

But it expects that they will be funded by individual practices rather than paid for centrally.

Professor Nigel Sparrow, deputy chairman of the RCGP, is currently working on an HCA task force for the Working in Partnership Programme (WiPP), a DoH advisory group.

He said that although HCAs were not ubiquitous as yet, neither were practice nurses 25 years ago but practices could not run without them now.

Although HCAs would have to be funded by existing staffing budgets, he thought that the resources they freed would make them a sound investment.

'Over the next two to three years I expect most practices will employ one,' said Professor Sparrow. 'It will largely be to help with quality framework targets. It is much easier to achieve a good skill mix with HCAs on board. They can help with things like smoking registers and new patient checks, leaving GPs and nurses free for other things.'

He expected that, in most cases, 'an HCA would work under the supervision of a practice nurse and do some of the things she has traditionally done' such as vaccination, taking blood and helping with minor injuries.

'I suppose they could save practices money in some circumstances, but that is not necessarily the point. It should help them to use resources more effectively,' he said.

GPC negotiator Dr Richard Vautrey said the introduction of HCAs was a relatively recent phenomenon but that it was 'certainly likely' every practice would have one in the next few years.

'I think phlebotomy is one of the major drivers for their introduction due simply to the increased number of blood tests required in general practice.

'They can also take on tasks like chronic disease management and even stock taking.'

His comments came as WiPP launched a tool kit of best practice for how to employ and use an HCA to greatest effect.

The tool kit covers nine major areas of employing an HCA in a GP practice, including their core competencies, professional development, career development and potential role in improving clinical quality.

Paul Vaughn, the WiPP project manager, stressed the importance of central guidance on HCA employment because they were currently employed on an ad hoc basis with no record of numbers or locations in the NHS.

'HCAs are an important element to skill mix,' he added. 'As the practice nurse role within primary care is afforded more opportunities to expand, there are more openings for the delegation of a greater range of tasks to HCAs.'

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