Redefining the physician assistant profession will take more than a name change

“Traditional wisdom is long on tradition and short on wisdom,” Warren Buffet, chairman and chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway and one of the most successful investors in the world, once said. This statement rings true for the physician assistant (PA) profession, too. The PA profession must evolve as the health-care delivery system is evolving, or we may not survive the changes.

I believe, as do many of our PA leaders, that the time to change the face and perception of our profession is now and necessary. The PA profession is not the same as it was when I graduated, nor was the profession I entered into at that time the same as it was at its conception. Change through growth and understanding has been the only constant.

A proposal to change the name of our profession to physician associate has been an ongoing debate since at least the 1980s, but has never really gained much support until now. The most common excuses given were other issues of relatively more importance and prohibitive associated costs. At that time, there were just a handful of PAs who had this vision, so it was easy to deny its importance.

Now, there is more demand than ever for the education, training and skills PAs possess. As physician shortages increase and more patients have access to healthcare, PAs will continue to take on more patient assessment and management responsibilities.

During the past 40 years, we have had our profession defined for us, not by us.  It is time for us to take charge of our own future. We need to accurately portray our profession to the public, as well as physicians, colleagues, legislators and others, so we are better able to function effectively in the changing health-care environment.

I have not been a proponent of changing our title to physician associate until recently, and I am still not a proponent of a simply changing the name without other considerations. A change to our name will necessitate a great deal of time and expense, ranging from changing federal and state legislation and re-licensing to changing logos and stationary, etc. Redefining our profession will be a monumental task and should only be done once. 

Analogous to a name change is the need to change or clarify the perception of our profession.  “Assistant” and “supervision” are two confounding terms that go hand-in-hand to hinder our role in the health-care delivery system. A name change must be accompanied by an accurate redefinition of how a PA is trained, what a PA does and how a PA does it.

I have contacted the American Academy of Physician Assistant's Board of Directors and encourage you to do the same.

William B. Mosher, PA-C, practices at the University of Michigan Health Service in Ann Arbor and is an advisor in the university's Pre-PA Club.

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