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Controversy emerges over recent change from “physician assistant” to “physician associate.”

Truth in Healthcare Advertising: What's In a Name?

By Jonathan Springston, Editor, Relias Media

During its recent House of Delegates meeting, the American Academy of PAs (AAPA) voted to change the term from “physician assistant” to “physician associate,” the culmination of the association’s years-long process to rebrand. But two national medical associations questioned the decision.

The American Medical Association (AMA) said the change “will only serve to further confuse patients about who is providing their care.”

“Given the existing difficulty many patients experience in identifying who is or is not a physician, it is important to provide patients with more transparency and clarity in who is providing their care, not more confusion,” AMA President Susan Bailey, MD, said. “We believe this latest effort is incompatible with state laws and are prepared to work with interested state and specialty medical societies to address any efforts to implement this title change in state or federal policy.”

The American Osteopathic Association (AOA) released a lengthy statement about “claimed territory and optical positioning through the use of professional titles,” explaining the differences between physicians and non-physicians, training requirements, and the roles of PAs and advanced practice registered nurses. For AOA leaders, titles are not just random letters or words to put on business cards.

“Efforts to seek parity among non-physician clinicians must not be at the expense of the truth in advertising and clarity of roles in our healthcare system,” AOA President Thomas L. Ely, DO, and CEO Kevin M. Klauer, DO, EJD, said. “Professional credentials, titles, and how we convey such information to patients is of great import and not a matter of marketing. This title change could easily create confusion for patients and put their safety at risk.”

In response, AAPA leaders shared a short letter reaffirming its commitment to going with “physician associate” and offering words of admirations for these national organizations. “We believe that this title more distinctly articulates the role and responsibilities of PAs in continuing to deliver quality healthcare, while reaffirming our commitment to team-based patient care,” AAPA wrote.

Although the group seems fully prepared to go with “physician associate,” that change likely will not happen any time soon. AAPA offers this exhaustive FAQ about the rebranding timeline and reasons behind it.

In the upcoming July issue of ED Legal Letter, author Stacey Kusterbeck interviewed several experts who explained how malpractice claims involving PAs in the ED have risen in recent years. Often, the allegations against PAs revolve around diagnostics and treatment, similar to cases brought against emergency physicians (EPs). However, in cases brought against PAs, the experts explained how EPs might be brought into litigation concerning a patient they never even knew about.

These experts go on to explain how PAs and EPs can work together to reduce risk. As one source put it: “The focus should be on creating a collegial environment so there is no hesitation for the PA to consult with a supervising EP and no resistance on the EP’s part.”