Oct. 5, 2021 — From the emergency room to the operating room, physician assistants are a vital component of many health care teams. Their roles are celebrated during National Physician Assistant Week, which takes place annually from Oct. 6-12.
Change is underway for the profession, which is expecting to undergo a renaming that some say will better reflect the role and responsibilities of PAs — physician associates.
Nina Multak, Ph.D., MPAS, PA-C, DFAAPA, the associate dean and Randolph B. Mahoney director of the University of Florida College of Medicine’s School of Physician Assistant Studies, discussed how this change came about and what it means for the future of PAs.
What is the history of the physician assistant profession?
Multak: The physician assistant profession began in the 1960s. PAs originally worked with one doctor, but over time they began to work with entire teams of health professionals, including physicians, nurses, occupational therapists. PAs diagnose illnesses, manage patient treatment and prescribe medications. Today more than 150,000 PAs help improve patient care and play a vital role in health care teams nationwide.
How did the discussion to change the meaning of PA to physician associate take place?
Multak: This has been in discussion for probably 20 or 25 years. Back in the 1990s, the physician assistant degree changed from a bachelor’s degree to a master’s degree, which reflects the level of responsibility that comes with the role. There was a resurgence of the name-change movement in recent years as more educational and leadership opportunities became available to PAs, such as advanced training in emergency and operating departments. In 2018, the American Academy of Physician Assistants, or AAPA, passed a resolution to investigate a formal name change for the profession.
When did the name change pass, and how soon will it be implemented nationwide?
Multak: In May, the AAPA House of Delegates passed a resolution affirming physician associate as the official title for the PA profession. However, before this becomes commonplace in training programs, it needs to be adopted at the federal and state levels. Depending on how long each of these processes takes, I expect it might take another two to five years before PA programs such as UF’s will be able to formally change their names.
What is the significance of using the term physician associate to describe this profession?
Multak: People sometimes misunderstand the role of a PA due to the name physician assistant. For example, there might be confusion between a PA and a medical assistant, whose job includes administrative tasks and performing clinical duties that sometimes serve to assist a PA or physician. With the name change, I’m glad we’ll be able to continue practicing with a name that’s more reflective of our duties and responsibilities. I’m especially excited for the newest generation of PAs, like those who are in our program right now and who will be joining us, whose roles will always have that connotation as an esteemed member of the health care team.