November 4th, 2015
What Should “PA” Stand For?
In the past few years, the charge to rename our profession from “physician assistant” to “physician associate” has gained momentum. Although a name change would not alter the scope of what PAs do on a day-to-day basis, the argument is that it might better inform our patients’ and colleagues’ perceptions of what we do. Groups for and against the idea sit adamantly on their respective sides. At this time, some accredited PA programs — e.g., the Yale School of Medicine and the University of Oklahoma School of Medicine — have already renamed their programs using the new physician associate title.
If you are a practicing PA with an unformulated opinion on this issue or a prospective applicant to PA school, you may want to be aware of the basic arguments on each side. Here they are:
- Regardless of what “PA” stands for, patients will still need to be educated on what a PA does. Whether a patient is asking, “What is a physician assistant?” or “What is a physician associate?” the answer is the same. A name change will not replace patient and colleague education.
- The field has grown quickly with the current name, and changing it now could lead to confusion.
- Changing the name is costly. First, it takes financial and volunteer resources to lobby legislators to change current legislation. These are resources that could be used to further the PA profession in other tangible ways, such as eliminating practice barriers. Secondly, PA programs and other supporting organizations will need to purchase all new materials with new branding.
- Medical literature database searches would become more complicated, e.g., requiring use of both “physician assistant” and “physician associate” as keywords.
- Every state would have to reopen all legislation containing the term “physician assistant” to revise it to “physician associate.” This process could inadvertently lead to reduction of practice privileges established in those bills that PAs have worked so hard to gain.
- The term “assistant” is a misnomer and downplays the role of the PA in patient care. PAs work as an integral part of the medical team.
- Patients confuse physician assistants with medical assistants.
- “Assistant” denotes a technical job, not a professional one.
- The role of a PA has evolved since the profession’s inception, and the name should reflect that evolution.
- As the PA profession is expanding internationally, it is important to develop a name that better encompasses our role and is understood beyond our borders.
- PAs are held to the same medical and legal standards as physicians, yet the term “assistant” suggests a lesser standard.
Despite the current debate over what the “A” in PA should signify, I think we universally agree that the use of the possessive apostrophe ‘s’ after physician (physician’s assistant/associate) makes us cringe. Regardless of our name, PAs will undoubtedly continue to focus on practicing high-quality, team-based medicine and educating their patients about who they are and what they do.
Which side of the debate do you fall on?