Physician assistants (PAs) are angry with me, and with good reason. I had the audacity to lump them together with nurse practitioners (NPs) in my book Patients at Risk, an act which one highly placed PA leader called “distasteful” in a private conversation with me.
Rebekah Bernard, MD
I will admit that PAs have reason to be upset. With competitive acceptance rates including a requirement for extensive healthcare experience before PA school, standardized training, and at least 2000 hours of clinical experience before graduation, the profession is a stark contrast to the haphazard training and 500 clinical hours required of NPs today. Further, unlike NPs, who have sought independent practice since the 1980s, PAs have traditionally been close allies with physicians, generally working in a 1:1 supervision model.
The truth is that it hurt to include PAs with NPs in my book. I’ve had my own close relationships with PAs over the years and found the PAs I worked with to be outstanding clinicians. Unfortunately, the profession has given me no choice. Following a model set by the NP profession, PA leaders have elected to forgo the traditional physician relationship model, instead seeking the right to practice independently without physician involvement.
Their efforts began with a change in terminology. “Optimal team practice” (OTP) was supposed to give PAs more flexibility, allowing them to work for hospitals or physician groups rather than under the responsibility of one physician. Not surprisingly, corporations and even academic centers have been quick to take advantage, hiring PAs and placing them in positions without adequate physician support. OTP paved the way for independent practice, as PAs sought and gained independence from any physician supervision in North Dakota, the first state to grant them that right.
Most recently, PAs have determined to change their name entirely, calling themselves physician associates. This move by the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) is the culmination of a years-long marketing study on how to increase the relevance and improve patient perception of the PA profession. The AAPA decision is expected to galvanize state and local PA organizations to lobby legislators for legal and regulatory changes that allow the use of the “physician associate” title, which is not currently a legal representation of PA licensure.
PAs’ latest attempt at title and branding reform follows years of advocacy to not be referred to as physician extenders or mid-level providers. For example, to gain more public acceptance of the PA model, the profession launched the public relations campaign “Your PA Can,” closely mirroring the “We Choose NPs” media blitz. PAs have also followed other dangerous precedents set by NPs, including 100% online training and a new “Doctor of Medical Science” degree, allowing PAs, as well as NPs, to now be called “doctors.”
I can understand PA reasoning even if I don’t agree with it. PAs are frustrated to be treated as second-class citizens compared with NPs, who have been granted independent practice in half the states in the union despite having a fraction of PA training. Frankly, it’s unfair that NPs are being hired preferentially over PAs simply because of looser legal requirements for physician oversight. The bottom line is that NPs have been more successful at persuading legislators to allow them independence — but that doesn’t make it right for either group.
While PAs have more clinical training upon graduation than NPs, they still have far less than physicians. PAs generally attend a 2-year master’s degree program after college which includes 2000 hours of hands-on clinical work. By comparison, the average medical student spends 4 years and receives 5000-6000 hours of supervised clinical training upon graduation. But this isn’t considered enough for a graduate medical student to practice medicine independently.
Physicians must complete at least 3 years of postgraduate residency training in most states to receive a medical license, and by the time a physician is permitted to practice medicine unsupervised, they will have attained no fewer than 15,000-20,000 hours of supervised clinical practice, with years of specialty-specific training.
Patients want and deserve access to truly physician-led care, but in many parts of the country, physicians are being replaced by nonphysician practitioners to boost corporate profits. In many cases, patients are kept in the dark about the differences in training between the medical professionals now in charge of their care. The American Medical Association and other critics have expressed concern that the proposed title of “physician associate” is likely to further obscure the training and roles of medical professionals, already a source of confusion to patients.
One specific criticism is that a physician associate has historically referred to a physician (MD or DO) in a private practice group who has not yet achieved the status of partner. These physician associates are fully licensed medical doctors who have completed medical school and residency training and are in the process of completing a partnership track with their group to participate fully in financial and administrative processes. This nomenclature is similar to that of attorneys on a partnership track. Thus, the use of the term “physician associate” for someone other than a medical doctor is seen as misleading, particularly to patients who cannot be expected to have familiarity with the differences in training.
Efforts to separate the PA profession from a close-working relationship with a physician are bad not only for patients but for PAs as well. Many PAs who desire physician involvement may find themselves hung out to dry, hired by companies and expected to perform outside of their comfort level. The profession also risks ostracizing physician allies, many of whom have preferentially sought to work with PAs.
My sincere hope is that the PA profession will return to its traditional roots of a physician-PA relationship, a model that has been demonstrated to result in high-quality patient care. When that day comes, I will happily re-title my book. But as long as the AAPA continues to work to remove physicians from the equation, patients are indeed at risk.
Rebekah Bernard, MD, is a family physician in Fort Myers, Florida, and president of Physicians for Patient Protection. She is the co-author of Patients at Risk: The Rise of the Nurse Practitioner and Physician Assistant in Healthcare (Universal Publishers, 2020).