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Posted By: Daniel Thibodeau, MHP, PA-C
July 13, 2021
In May 2021, on a vote of 198 for and 68 against, the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) House of Delegates (HOD) passed a resolution to change the professional title of "physician assistant" (PA) to "physician associate." As part of the decision process, the AAPA outsourced work to a consulting company that conducted a broad survey to PAs, physicians, and patients to determine the perception of what PAs do, and how patients and physicians embrace them. The results show that while patients, PAs, and physicians have a good, broad understanding of what PAs do, there is still uncertainty in all 3 groups on the correct definition of the profession. Thus, the issue was finally brought to a vote in this year's HOD after several decades of debate.
This issue is nothing new to the PA profession. For the last 30 years or more, the profession has grappled with the title and a possible change. Since the first PA program started at Duke University in 1965, heavy debates outside of the AAPA's HOD have been brewing, calling upon the profession to change its title. With a more significant presence in healthcare, PA professionals have spoken and feel "physician assistant" does not represent the true meaning of the career. Now, with the passage of this resolution, the floodgates of logistics and process will begin. What is surprising to many is that this will not happen overnight, and it will take several years for a complete conversion across all aspects of a massive system.
While it was a rigorous debate and the resolution passed, the PA profession now has a significant task to meet with this decision: The AAPA, state, and specialty organizations must organize and plan to work in concert to make this change a reality. While this can happen, there are several variables to consider. The cost to all organizations could be high, and this may reflect negatively toward the members who would ultimately pay for this endeavor; issues impacting regulatory ordeals, reimbursement, and trademarks could make this journey very difficult and costly. In addition, other medical organizations, such as the American Medical Association (AMA), may bristle at this recent decision and present a significant barrier, as the ability for the AAPA to work with the AMA is critical. What actions can be made so that these barriers do not ultimately prevent the title change? The PA profession worked very hard to get to this level of respect and recognition, so an obvious concern is if this respect will be compromised by a title change.
Now that we have embarked on this journey, questions will begin to fill our minds. I question the commitment from the very individuals who have opined on social media about the title change: Will they place their financial obligation behind those words? Who will pay for this massive change that we say we want? Will this title change impact our image, our respect and recognition? And if so, how will we know?
I love this profession, and we have made our healthcare system a better place. While embarking on this process, we must be careful to keep our eyes on that ultimate mission and avoid potential decisions that could hurt the profession.
- American Academy of Physician Assistants. Title change. www.aapa.org/title-change/. Accessed July 12, 2021.
- Fitzgerald M. National PA week – Origins and history. pahx.org/news/national-pa-week-origins-and-history/. Accessed July 12, 2021.