When the physician assistant profession was born 40 years ago, it was 100% male. Today, more than half of all PAs are female.
I feel good about that — and I’m not surprised. After a single day as a candy striper, I knew I didn’t want to be a nurse. During that day I watched an elderly woman pitch her loaded lunch tray at a nurse who was tying to help her eat, and heard a family member curse at a nurse because the doctor hadn’t yet visited the patient. I also saw a nursing supervisor hurl criticism at a recently graduated nurse in front of patients, family, and other staff, and watched a physician throw a chart at a nurse because he couldn’t finda lab report that was clipped on the front of the chart for his review.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to put up with such disrespect. But I still wanted a career in health care, and the PA profession was an attractive alternative — especially for those who bridle at the hierarchy of hospitals, where nurses are sometimes scapegoats. The PA profession seemed a particularly good fit for women like me who wanted to combine career and family. Becoming a PA doesn’t require as many years of training as becoming a doctor, and the resulting jobs offer more flexible hours and shorter work weeks than the medical profession.
According to Sally Lindsay, PhD, traditionally “male” professions usually become predominantly female only when there is a “deterioration of work conditions.” Fortunately, this is not the case with PAs. In fact, there have been changes every year in state rules and regulations that expand PAs’ scope of practice, affording us greater autonomy. So what’s responsible for the gender shift? First, the PA profession was born during the 1960s, alongside the women’s movement, a time when many women were starting to reject the traditional female roles of stay-at-home mom, teacher, or nurse.
At the same time, more employers were offering workers health insurance, medical science was advancing rapidly, and the idea that health care is a basic right of all citizens, not just the affluent, was entering public consciousness. To help meet this rising demand for quality primary care, Eugene A. Stead, MD, of the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., put together the first class of PAs in 1965. He recruited them from the ranks of Navy corpsmen who’d received medical training during their military service and later during the Vietnam War. Because the military was 100% male at the time, none of the first PAs were women.
Since then, demand for PAs has steadily climbed. CNN and Money magazine recently listed the PA profession as one of the top five jobs in the United States, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the number of PA positions will increase 50% by 2014. Moreover — in what’s perhaps the clearest sign of a flourishing profession—PAs’ salaries continue to rise.
Actually, the feminization of a profession is not just happening with PAs. While most physicians are still men, the majority of medical students are now women. An article in The Boston Globe observed that this influx of women “makes patient care friendlier” and, as a result, female physicians “may be less likely to get sued than their male counterparts.”
Though we don’t have malpractice data on our profession, it’s not unreasonable to think the same may be true of female PAs. If so, that’s one more reason the feminization of the PA profession is a good thing—for us and for our patients.