Profession Name Change

I recently read an article confirming some of my thoughts about changing our profession's name. I don't usually write opinion pieces, and I am unsure if this will qualify as one, but I want to share my thoughts about it.   

The debate about our name has been an on again - off again topic over the 34 years I have been a PA. Every so many years, the issue has come up as many feel the word assistant doesn't truly capture the scope of all we can do, especially now. I am not opposed to a name change. However, what troubles me is some confusion and misinformation that has occurred since AAPA decided to legally change its name to the American Academy of Physician Associates in 2021. Since then, five state chapters have also changed their names (Bean, 2023). I may be dating myself here, but this feels like the cart was put before the horse.   

Although an organization can call itself whatever it chooses or decide to change its name, changing the name of an established profession is another matter and no small feat. AAPA has stated as part the rationale for the name change to reduce confusion by providing more clarity for patients about who we are as PAs. I can't help but wonder if changing the name of the national organization that represents and advocates for physician assistants to physician associates seems to invite confusion. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, physician associate is not a recognized occupation.  

For those of us in PA education, we must accurately educate our students that although AAPA changed the organization's name, the profession's name has not changed. We are still physician assistants, and our students need to know that. I find students mistakenly believe they will be physician associates when they graduate and start practice. I have even heard institutional leadership tell students they will be physician associates, even though they are enrolled in a physician assistant program. And I am sure I am not the only one who has had students ask when the program will change its name to physician associate. I have also observed new programs beginning to use the name Physician Associate program.  

To their credit, AAPA has clearly communicated that changing our profession's name will take a long time. For this name change to be official, many legislative and legal steps on both federal and state levels must happen first, which will likely take a decade or more.  Changes must also be made with licensing, governing boards and bodies, and PA education (AAPA, 2023; Bean, 2023). Remember, it wasn't until 2000 that our profession finally attained recognition in all 50 states and territories (PAHx, 2024). 

However, this timeline for this change seems to have been overlooked by many, along with AAPA's clear directive that practicing PAs are not to use the title physician associate.  

"PAs should continue to use physician assistant or PA as their official legal title in a professional capacity, particularly in clinical settings and with patients until the jurisdiction governing their licensure and practice has formally adopted the title of "physician associate" (AAPA, 2023). 

I believe it is important to keep this in mind, and for us in education, we must ensure our students understand the timeline and the potential risks if we prematurely refer to ourselves as physician associates. AAPA (2023) has defined these risks on its webpage, which include:    

  • Potential to be disciplined by their state licensing board or an attorney general's office action.  
  • Employers or healthcare facilities could view the action of referring to oneself as a physician associate as a violation of policy, procedure, or professional staff bylaws. 
  • Professional malpractice issues could arise.  

Regardless of whether you favor this name change or not, it is essential that we recognize and clearly and effectively communicate that although this process has been set in motion, it is far from finalized. Until it is, we remain physician assistants.


AAPA. (2023). Title change: General FAQs: Title Change Rationale 

Bean, M. (2023). The long road to 'physician associate.' Becker's Clinical Leadership. 

Physician Assistant History Society [PAHx]. (2024). 1991-2000 Maturation and growth.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2023). Occupational Outlook Handbook. 


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