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Naming Our Profession

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There has been much debate regarding changing the physician assistant name.  Most notably, the name deemed most acceptable has been physician associate.  When the profession first came to fruition, the original designation was physician associate.  Physicians during that era asked that the name be changed to assistant, because the original name did not accurately describe the scope of practice.  At that time, physicians were correct in saying we were not associates.  Our scope was very limited, and the education was not up to par to earn the name associate.  Physicians during the 1970s had a valid point.

The problem we now face is that the profession has considerably evolved since its inception.  Physicians are doing more now than they have ever done.  There are also many physician assistants who have been practicing for over 20 years, who have accrued the knowledge and experience to earn the name associate.  The term assistant gives the notion that PAs literally assist the physician.  It implies that PAs do not have a mind of their own, but rather take and execute the supervising physician’s orders.  To expand on how inaccurate this is, take a look at the veteran affairs.  The veteran affairs have recently changed their policy to say that physician assistants no longer have a supervising physician, but rather a collaborating physician.  They have also expanded the role to be completely autonomous, so long as the physician assistant has demonstrated competency.  This was a huge move on behalf of the veteran affairs, which demonstrates their trust and support for the profession.

The second issue we must tackle is what the term ‘assistant’ means to the general public.  The name physician assistant is very misleading.  The majority of people who have never heard of the profession will expect to see the physician for their visit, as our title says assistant; many confuse this as medical assistant.  Having to constantly defend what we do and how competent we are is a clear indication that something has to change.  How easy it is to change a name is not clear.  Will keeping the initials PA make the process easier?  Is it as simple as replacing the name assistant with associate, or do laws need to be rewritten?  These questions are frequently asked, but there are no clear answers to be found.  The name change is not to change what we do or to change the scope of practice.  The name change is to bring awareness to the public, so that we do not have to keep defending what we do.  It brings credibility, which in turn will bring in trust.  The quality of care will not change because of a name, but it will change how many view us.  The unfortunate truth is that the way we are viewed matters.  “It has been said that perception is reality – everything else is illusion”.

It is clear that we have outgrown the title assistant.  What was once a valid point is no longer valid 40 years later.  The profession has grown, and will continue to grow.  With most programs awarding masters as the entry level degree, and a couple doctorate programs available, it is clear we are no longer assistants.  It is clear we have earned the title of physician associate.

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Andrew
Founder of PA BOARDS