Medical credentials are meaningful to both providers and patients. For providers, medical credentials show that we’ve worked hard to learn what we need to know in order to treat patients and engage fully in our professions. For patients, credentials provide assurance that their providers have a clue about what they’re doing.  

Although credentials are important, they can also be confusing and may seem overdone. Take mine from 2 years ago: PA-C, MPAS, DFAAPA, ATC. I’m no longer a certified athletic trainer, so the “ATC” designation no longer applies, but the others are still longer than my name. I notice that some patients, when they see these credentials on my business card, appear overwhelmed and think that they’re supposed to know what they mean. They’re so perplexing that some PAs and NPs don’t even know what they mean. And when patients ask about their meaning, explaining it to them often makes the situation worse. “What’s a PA?” they ask. The AAPA is now recommending that we “just say PA,” but this response is often unsatisfactory for curious patients. They want to know what it stands for, but their eyes glaze over when I tell them; the situation isn’t much better when I try to explain the meaning of the other initials. 

My NP colleagues tell me of similar concerns with initials like ARNP, FNP-C, APRN, CNM, CNS — not to mention RN, LPN, and CAN. I’ve recently been puzzled by the emerging increase in the use of APRN, which stands for advanced practice registered nurse. This, I am told, is an umbrella term for nurses with masters-level training, including certified nurse anesthetists, certified nurse midwives, and clinical nurse specialists. Now throw DNP into the mix and you’ve got almost the entire alphabet. I think I have a basic understanding of the NP credentialing model, but even so, I’ve had very poor luck in successfully explaining this to patients or other PAs.  

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With the polarizing but ongoing effort to create doctorate-level PA programs, PAs too are trying to add more credentials to their title. Additionally, the PA certifying body offers a selection of “Certificates of Added Qualifications” for completion, which adds to the credential confusion.

If you think PAs and NPs take up much of the alphabet, just look at this list of other healthcare providers’ credentials:

MBBS, DDS, DMD, BDS, DPM, DC, MMS, RPh, PharmD, RRT, CRT, ASRT, BSRT, PMD, EMT-B, EMT-I, EMT-IV, EMT-I/99, EMT-I/89, MSAT, MAT, CAATE, RD, RDN, DPT, and MOT.

And there are plenty more where those came from.

Maybe the certifying bodies for PAs and NPs should include questions about these initials on the certification test. Chances are we’d see a lot of re-takes. And if we as providers don’t know what they mean, I’m pretty sure patients find the sum total of credential letters about as useful as a screen door on a submarine.