This year is bringing a long-debated reckoning to the branding and identity of the PA profession. In May 2021, the AAPA House of Delegates passed a resolution to change the PA title from physician assistant to “physician associate,” by a resounding vote of 198 to 68.
In June 2021, PA members of Doximity also voted on the name change and discussed its future implications for their profession. Out of 1,097 PAs who participated in the poll, 69% (757) voted yes, 24% (263) voted no, and 7% (77) were undecided. The breakdown of “yes” and “no” votes nearly matched the outcome of the AAPA House of Delegates vote, indicating representative alignment among PAs.
John Kircher, PA, of Michigan supported the change and called for unity: “It is good to see the House of Delegates and AAPA staff coming together to change the policy on a name change. We have been arguing over this about every five years in the House, without a consensus. We need to get together to support this and our professional organizations.”
Richard Harvey, PA, of Texas agreed, saying, “We've labored under the misnomer of 'assistant' for too many years. This change was needed a long time back.”
Not all PAs are optimistic about the new title, however. William Cornelison, PA, a geriatrics PA in Georgia, expressed concern that there would be more harm than benefit in the change.
“This name change describes a relationship and not a function. We associate with many health care professions beyond a physician … It does not identify us as a health care provider of medicine, but continues to identify us with physicians,” he said.
“This title holds onto the paternalistic association of the title ‘physician assistants.’ What other major profession includes another profession in its title? Society at large will continue to see the PA profession as a secondary profession. Our profession has matured and it is time our profession stands on its own merits in the health care industry. This name change is an inadequate title of who we are. I do far more than associate with a physician.”
Several PAs also raised the question of how the title change would be received by patients. Carly Hustriei, PA, of California questioned how the title “physician associate” would affect the patient relationship. “Physician assistant is now well-known and I think finally gaining recognition. Changing it would create complexity and confusion. Patients finally feel comfortable and familiar with the term.”
In contrast, Pranjali Wakade, PA, offered that the new title “may solidify a doctor-PA relationship as a team more so than the title physician assistant.”
Some PAs would prefer a completely different title. Seth Ullian, PA, a general surgery PA in Florida, prefers “advanced practice clinician (APC),” aligning with how NPs are also called advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs). “It dispenses with the mid-level nonsense and removes the title's reliance on a physician,” he said.
No matter the outcome and preference, it is evident that unity and consensus is needed across the profession. Clifton Trinidad, PA, of Virginia reflected on his training and what the two titles have meant to him throughout his career. “Years ago I got my degree from the University of Oklahoma declaring me a physician associate. Over the years there’s been a lot of turmoil and hand wringing over this title. But it’s time to unite behind one thing. If we don’t, I don’t see much of a healthy future for the profession. Besides, I spent a lifetime of a career as an army PA, and have had various titles from rank title, battalion surgeon, medical officer ... in various dirt holes of the world and I have never assisted anyone, and that’s the bottom line.”
What title best describes your work as a PA? Do you agree or disagree with the title “physician associate”?
Illustration by Jennifer Bogartz