Who calls the shots about a physician assistant title change?

Members of the AAPA have been debating a title change for physician assistants.
Members of the AAPA have been debating a title change for physician assistants.

The last few months have been full of AAPA media that talks about moving away from the title of physician assistant towards the shortened PA. “Just say PA!” says the new PA Professional publication.

Seriously? This is how we'll solve this whole name change thing – we'll just move all of this to “Just say PA”?

Those who have followed along have heard the bluster, the threats, and the heat from those who object to the historical name of “physician assistant.” The question of “Are we physician assistants or physician associates?” causes more heated debate than  “Should we find a way to support common sense gun regulation?” or “How do we decrease health care inequities between groups of patients?”

Go figure.

When I asked my non-physician assistant friends what came to mind when they heard “PA,” it didn't sound very medical. One friend said “Isn't that what you call a system that makes loud noises?”

Other responses:

  • PA = production assistant
  • PA = program assistant
  • PA = prosecuting attorney

Every time this issue about the name change has come up in front of the AAPA House of Delegates (HOD), it has failed. The HOD has time and time again come down on the side of no name change, sticking with the title of “physician assistant.” Yet the AAPA Board of Directors and AAPA leadership tinker with it ad nauseum. I suppose this is in an attempt to keep those in favor of a name change satisfied and paying their dues.

To the “Just say PA!” folks, I ask, what about when patients ask what PA stands for?

The “Just say PA!” proponents in the recent PA Professional article said, "I see this as a good compromise that can bring the profession together. The day will come when the patient will ask, 'What does PA stand for?' and we'll say, 'Well, it used to stand for physician assistant, but we felt that term did not fully describe what we do. So we chose to just use our initials: PA. But the real answer is, 'I practice medicine. I'm here to take care of you. How can I help you?"'

I described the proposed response to a patient who was curious about our title. They said that if they asked what PA meant and someone offered this tortured answer, they'd get up and walk out of the room.

Colleagues, we're way off base on this.

Under what authority does the AAPA make this change, particularly in light of the consistent expression of support for the current title “physician assistant” from the AAPA House of Delegates?

I know this will never go away, but in my dream world, it would. In my dream world, all PAs would move beyond this disruptive and divisive issue and focus instead on taking care of our patients. In my dream world, we'd stop wasting time on this issue and instead focus on the epidemic of health care inequities and the social injustice that is killing so many of our patients.

I am a physician assistant. And so are you. 

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