Why Physician Assistant Re-Branding Is Still on Hold

The physician assistant who works in your doctor’s group practice may be referring to herself as a physician associate by this time next year. Then again, she may never change her title. Despite the American Academy of Physician Assistants (now Associates) changing its name and pushing for an industry wide re-brand, they are recommending that PAs do not make the official switch just yet.

Re-branding physician assistants (PAs) as physician associates is ostensibly to change the perception that all PAs do is assist doctors. Proponents of the change say the current title does not accurately describe physician assistant jobs. They say the new title is more descriptive.

Authority Is at the State Level

Getting back to the American Academy of Physician Associates, they made the official change in 2021, but only after looking at the profession’s image during a three-year study period. Their research uncovered broad support for the name change. Apparently, some 71% of surveyed patients and 61% of physicians agreed that replacing ‘assistant’ with ‘associate’ better reflected the realities of physician assistant jobs.

So why is the Academy still recommending that PAs stick with the old title? Because ultimately the Association doesn’t get to make that choice. State regulating authorities are the ones who designate job titles and their respective scopes and practices. A PA arbitrarily choosing to change their title could end up facing legal issues.

It is believed that state regulating authorities will eventually get around to implementing the name change. But as with anything involving government, it will be slow going between now and then. Physician assistants are being encouraged to continue using the traditional title until their states officially recognized the new one.

Way Beyond Assisting

Whether or not the word ‘associate’ is a more accurate description of what PAs do. Obviously, clinicians do a lot more than simply assist doctors. They are recognized members of healthcare teams with defined responsibilities and welcome contributions. In addition, PAs are not restricted to primary care. There are all sorts of specialties including emergency medicine, surgery, and even pediatrics.

PAs undergo an education and training regimen very similar to what an internist (physician) undergoes. The PA essentially learns the exact same things. The only real difference between a PA and physician is the number of clinical hours each one has put in. Physicians have a lot more clinical hours under their belts.

In most states, PAs are licensed to provide all sorts of primary care. They can see patients and diagnose illnesses. They can develop treatment plans, offer prognoses, order lab tests, and write prescriptions. The biggest restriction in most states is the requirement to be supervised by a physician. That’s why most PAs work in group practices or at hospitals.

 Recognizing a Distinct Profession

Physician assistant jobs will not fundamentally change should state regulators begin adopting the new job title. However, adopting the new title amounts to recognition of the PA job as a separate and distinct profession. It draws a line of distinction between physicians and associates, like the distinction between registered nurses and nurse practitioners.

The largest professional group to represent PAs has officially changed its name and recommended that the entire specialty be re-branded. For now, though, any such re-branding is on hold. Those who support it urge PAs to wait until their states legally change the name themselves. Will that ever happen? Probably. How long it takes is something no one can really predict. With any luck, the PA at your doctor’s office will be using the new title within a year or two.

Disclaimer: The viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at Healthcare Staffing Innovations, LLC.


Add yours

    In my opinion, STATE recognition is not enough. The name ASSOCIATE should first be recognized federally since many of the patients seen by physician assistant have Medicaid & Medicare. Also, in my
    humble opinion, the name change was not necessary. If not implemented properly, this could be a set back with reimbursement. It could take years for each state to recognize the new name change just like it did and is for prescribing.

    But, what do I know, I have only been a practicing PA for 50 years.


    Donald Black, PA-C, MPAS, DFAAPA

  2. Bruce

    In my opinion this movement is way past due as people would constantly think we were the same as a medical assistant. I went through PA school back in 97 and they were bouncing around this idea back then. Now 25 years later it finally happened so it will probably take another 20 to become official. It’s taken a long time for most states to finally allow PAs to write controlled substance. My home state still doesn’t allow full prescribing privileges for PAs.

  3. Mel

    You can have a 4 year degree in engineering, or art or any non medical degree and get accepted to a 2 year PA (physician assistant) program and be called a physician associate/assistant? If that’s the case why have a 6 year medical school for medical students versus a 2 year physician assistant program?

    Medical school MD doctor 6 years + versus
    Physician assistant 2 year program after ANY bachelors degree in anything.

    This is an insult to the physician title who worked/educated themselves.

  4. Mary Dolan

    I look at this name change as a cost in the way of having to make changes in signage, name tags, documents, not to mention re-educating patients and the general public. Is it worth it? I don’t think so. The last time in my memory that the state of Missouri updated the rules about Medicaid, they “accidentally” left PAs off the document having to do with who can provide care for these patients. It took a year or more to fix and many PAs lost their jobs. I really don’t see what difference the name makes when the patients understand perfectly what we do and choose to see us for care because of what they know about us.

  5. Mary H

    Association, Academy- get your acts together. Don’t make a change unless all are onboard.
    Leaves us, carrying the torch,
    looking foolish.

    Mary Halleck NU class of ‘94

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