US-style physician assistants are to be trained at the University of Hertfordshire in a move that could help to address Britain's shortage of GPs.
In the US, physician assistants work under the supervision of a physician, and in many cases the training takes longer than that of a doctor in this country.
The year-long Hertfordshire course, which will start in September, is aimed at paramedic and nursing graduates. In future, places could also be offered to life sciences graduates, although in that instance the course may be extended to two years.
The university does not yet have any idea of the number of places that will be available.
Hertfordshire's associate head of the department of allied health professions, Guy Dean, said: "These physician assistants would be of benefit across the National Health Service, particularly in primary care, because they will allow GPs more time to develop their range of specialist interests. Patients will then be able to get a level of specialist care in the practice rather than within the hospital setting."
Graduates from the course will have the skills to provide acute and chronic care, make diagnoses, deal with emergency calls and carry out home visits. In certain situations, they will also be able to prescribe.
By working with GPs in this way, the physician assistants should be able to take pressure off hospital doctors and help trusts to meet the European working-time regulations for junior doctors.
The first US-qualified physician assistant is due to start in the UK next month at the Great Bridge Partnership for Health, a group of GP practices in the West Midlands. Hertfordshire has been involved in the pilot project.
The government is keen to blur the divisions between different health professions. It has argued that staff development should be driven primarily by the needs of patients rather than by the dictates of what health secretary Alan Milburn has described as "professional tribes".
The NHS Plan published in 2000 supported developments where traditional boundaries had been challenged.
• A charitable foundation has awarded £2.2 million to four universities to promote nursing research. The five-year award from the PPP Foundation, set up in 1998 after the sale of the PPP Healthcare Group, will fund the Consortium for Healthcare Research.
The four partners are City University; the London School
of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine; Hertfordshire University; and Queen Mary, University of London.
The funds will be used to support doctoral and postdoctoral research fellowships in nursing, midwifery, health visiting and allied health professions. Each institution will also provide funds to support the partnership.
Up to 18 fellowships will be funded over five years.
Nursing research was badly hit by the research assessment exercise, in which many departments improved their scores, but not by enough to receive funding.