T he American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) House of Delegates has passed a resolution altering the meaning of the medical acronym PA from “physician assistant” to “physician associate.”

According to Clinical Assistant Professor Randy D. Danielsen, PhD, PA-C, of Stony Brook University’s Department of Physician Assistant Education, this change was motivated by the simplistic implications implied by the word “assistant.” Although the AAPA passed the resolution, officially implementing the title change could take years, as there are many groups involved, from the Physician Assistant Education Association to the Accreditation Review Commission of Education for the Physician Assistant.

Many professionals in the medical community view this change as a step forward. Texas-based emergency medicine PA Mike Sharma notes that the term “associate” offers a more appropriate fit within the framework of a PA’s job requirements, offering PAs a title that better reflects their abilities and functions.

However, not all PAs view the title of “physician associate” as a positive change. Some opponents of the new title feel it may confuse patients into thinking that a PAs stature or weight is closer to that of a physician. Emergency medicine physician W. Richard Bukata, MD, suggests that upon meeting new patients, PAs provide them with a business card to ensure a clear understanding of who fills what role, thus safeguarding against patients mistaking PAs for physicians.

Others, like Arizona-based PA Lee Dockins, find the new title to be no less demeaning than being labeled an “assistant.” Dockins finds no correlation between the role of a PA and the title of “associate.”

Some medical professionals vehemently oppose the change, like Arizona-based occupational medicine PA Mike Goodwin, who feels that legalizing the new title is a waste of time and money. Educators Bert Simon, DHSc, of Pennsylvania and Joe Weber, DHSc, of South Carolina agree, citing the financial cost as not being worth the effort. Weber mentions, for instance, that PA programs will have to dish out thousands of dollars on rebranding, along with other massive expenditures brought on by the change.

Arizona-based director and clinical professor Alison C. Essary, DHSc, MHPE, PAC-C, argues that the resolution does not consider the breadth and depth of research surrounding the PA profession. According to Essary, the change neither considers concerns around PA training nor clarifies the major differences between professions.

She also mentions legal costs and staff fees tied to PA student clinical agreements, PA program recruitment, and marketing items, all of which may end up finding their way into student tuition. Furthermore, required changes to PA contracts could include credentialing, potentially causing a significant financial burden for students, programs, and practices.