Dave’s Blog: The PA Doctorate—Needed or Not?

by Dave Mittman, PA, DFAAPA

It is ten years from now.

You are a patient. Or better yet, your two-year-old daughter is a patient. And you know just a little about medical people. You do know that the pharmacist you see, the physical therapist you see and the NP you see all practice at the “doctorate” level. You appreciate that, and in some ways, you expect people who are going to make decisions that could affect your children’s health to practice at that level. Do you want to see “Ms. Assistant” or “Dr. Practitioner”? Not knowing anything more, I know who I would want. I know who I would pick to guide my healthcare decisions, and my daughter’s. If I am a PA, I have to realize sooner or later (and no, not yet) all “advanced” health professionals will have a doctorate. Do I want myself to be in the above situation? PAs spend more hours in their clinical training than almost any other profession and at least deserve what the PTs, OTs, DATs, AudDs, PharmDs, DNPs and others achieve for their many hours spent learning. Especially when most PA doctorates will be earned for even many more hours with on the job clinical training with a leadership and/or educational emphasis.

You are an insurance company. For decades, you have let all other professions know that people who practice on a doctoral level will have a much easier job being credentialed for reimbursement than those with Master’s degrees. I am the company and in some cases, unfortunately, I get to choose. Why not do what again has been the customary and usual way to measure a professional’s competence? Ask if they have a doctorate. PTs, OTs, audiologists, dentists and others have found this out. So will we.

You are a legislator and PAs are coming in asking for full practice. Or let’s bring it down a notch. The legislators realize you can write orders for other professions. PT, OT, speech therapy, order different therapies. You can over-ride a pharmacist in some ways as the prescription you write needs to be filled by them. At the hospital, you write “orders” (poor team based word) for nurses, nutritionists and others. Sooner or later the logical question will be; “How can you expect as a Master’s prepared professional to tell four doctorates what to do?” One profession or another will balk.

In many states, the podiatrist is now the podiatric physician, the optometrist is the optometric physician, the chiropractor, the chiropractic physician. Yes, they changed it to help elevate their status. This is not going away. The problem is the law says you are a physician(’s) assistant. To any patient who has not analyzed the situation, PAs have a problem as our scope of practice is and will continue to be more comprehensive than the above professionals. Yet to insurance companies, legislators, Medicare and patients it would be logical that you would be “assisting” them. A doctorate would help even the playing field and aid in understanding we do much more than what our title says. So would a title change, but that’s another conversation not for today.

This is not about “If you wanted to be a doctor, you should have gone to medical school.” This is very much about a profession that either fits into the 21st century and recognizes that it is no longer 1975, or a profession that will stay misunderstood and undervalued for what they bring to the table. It is very much about a train that has left the station. Ask the Pharmacist, or the dentist, or the psychologist, or the chiropractor, or the DPT, or the DNP or the AudD if they want to be physicians? The answer will be “No, why?” Why would PAs not want to be PAs educated to the highest level they could be?

Let me tell you, twenty years ago I thought wanting a doctorate was more ego than anything else. It had no place in MY clinical world. It would not get me a larger paycheck. I became a PA in part to show the world that “non-doctors” could deliver the same care as “doctors” did. I know how good we are and never wanted to take a boat the Caribbean to become a physician. I bleed PA blue. I thought only academic PAs and NPs needed doctorates. But times change. Professions change. People change. We are, like it or not, part of many professions that practice in the same space or close spaces and if we are expected to advance, we had better at least consider change. Especially when we are the only profession ignoring that change. Again, ten years from now, we will be the “odd ones”. Realize, we are not making the rules, only following the rules followed by almost all other professions on this one. Healthcare changes. Professions change and like it or not, we must change also.

I have also never met a PA (or NP) who has obtained a doctorate who has not said that it made them a better all-around clinician. It filled in some holes. It gave them greater understanding and appreciation. I hear these sentiments often. I believe them.

Realize the transition for the PA profession to become a doctorate profession will take decades. It will hardly effect most PAs practicing today unless they are in their first decade or second decade of practice. Some of them may have to eventually do “at work, on the job” bridge programs. The NP profession has tried to push the doctorate as the initial degree earned at graduation from NP school with mixed results. We should learn from them. Keep programs at a Master’s level adding clinical doctorates earned by more clinical experience plus an emphasis on other tracks. NPs are already feeling some positives from their shift. Doctorates are opening doors. Doctorates are giving them seats at the table. Doctorates give more understanding to topics not stressed in NP school. Doctorates open eyes.

Doctorates are not needed because those professions need to compete with, or want to “be” physicians, but because it seems professions eventually need to let the public, legislators, insurance companies and other health professionals know that their postgraduate education offers the level of education and sophistication needed to take on the responsibility they have. Doctorates give that guarantee.

Eventually, PAs will realize the same thing.

Dave Mittman has been a PA and later NP leader for thirty years. He co-founded the LIU PA Program student society, was President of the New York State Society of PAs from 1978-1979 and served on the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) Board of Directors from 1981-1983. Dave was also the first USAF Reserves PA permitted to practice. Dave spent 9 years in primary care in Brooklyn, N.Y. and left to begin a career in medical publishing with Physician Assistant Journal. Dave has also won the AAPA Public Education award for leading the march in Trenton NJ to establish PA practice. Dave left PA Journal to co-found Clinicians Publishing Group (1990) and Clinician Reviews Journal in 1991. Dave has authored papers in publications as diverse as “Chicken Soup for the Expectant Mothers Soul”, “U.S. Pharmacist”, “The British Medical Journal” and others. Dave¹s paper in the BMJ was the first internationally written paper written on PA practice. Dave and a few very close PA colleagues co-founded the PAs For Tomorrow”” in 2012 which is a new national professional organization representing and advocating for PAs in an different way. Dave as spoken at hundreds of NP and PA meetings and always has some interesting thoughts on the future of both professions. Most recently Dave has been busy launching another dream; Clinician 1, the first internet community for PAs and NPs. Dave is married to his sweetheart Bonnie for 32 years and has two wonderful children.

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  1. Marc Bratton

    Dave, you have finally come around to what some of us have seen for a decade. Like it or not, degrees matter to our patients (consumers).

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