Physician assistant vs. physician associate: What’s the difference?

April 11, 2023   |   PA

What’s in a name? It turns out a lot, according to physician assistants who are moving to officially change their position title from physician assistant to physician associate. 

The American Academy of Physician Associates (AAPA) House of Delegates passed a resolution in May 2021 affirming “physician associate” as the official title of the PA profession by a majority vote of 198 to 68. 

Although the title change from physician assistant to physician associate is slow to change across all states and U.S. territories, that doesn’t mean the new name isn’t welcome. “Associate” is a more accurate indicator of PAs’ clinical training and expertise level than “assistant.”

The change addresses a common misperception that PAs merely “assist” physicians. The reality is that PAs are rigorously educated and trained medical professionals who deliver high-quality, team-based healthcare. 

The new physician associate name signifies to colleagues and patients that they’re well-trained, capable clinicians. In some states, PAs can operate with medical autonomy, without a supervising physician. 

What the title change means to PAs on the ground


Kris Pyles-Sweet, DMSc, PA-C, owner of Modern Medical and director at large of the AAPA board of directors, welcomes the name change and sees how important the title is to PAs in the field – especially for those just starting.

As a young PA, Pyles-Sweet ran every aspect of clinical practice on behalf of its owners for years before she decided to start her private practice. Still, that wasn’t enough evidence to some of her coworkers that she was cut out for owning a practice herself. 

A colleague, who heard she was leaving to start a practice, was surprised and reminded her that she was a physician assistant. “He was stuck in what he thought a PA was. Nobody saw me as the boss,” she says. 

That colleague’s doubt motivated her more to prove herself.

Pyles-Sweet went on to successfully launch different successful practices in two states. While she believed in her ability to build any medical practice she wanted, she thinks the PA title change from physician assistant to physician associate will help other PAs have similar confidence.

“We can do so many things other than just help physicians practice medicine. We can run practices. We can be in the C-suite. We can be medical science liaisons for drug companies,” she says.


The new PA title provides more clarity about what a PA does


Pyles-Sweet’s experience underscores the reason the PA profession is pursuing title change. “It’s really about clarifying who PAs are and what they do. We want all stakeholders to clearly understand the PA role on the healthcare team, and the term ‘assistant’ doesn’t do that well,” says Jennifer Orozco, DMSc, PA-C, DFAAPA, president and chair of the AAPA board.

According to research from Kantar Research, 71 percent of patients surveyed agreed that the title “physician associate” matches the job description of a PA. Over 61 percent of physicians surveyed agreed that “physician associate” matches the job description.

While PAs welcome the name change, enacting title change at both the state and federal levels is a long process. “When the decision to update the profession’s title was made, we understood that implementation would be a complex and challenging undertaking involving various stakeholders – not only state PA-led organizations and PA programs but also state and federal governments, regulators and employers,” says Orozco. 


Patients benefit from the clarity that comes with PA title change


Patients benefit from the clarity that comes with the title change from physician assistant to physician associate as well. “Patients deserve to understand how PAs participate in their healthcare and how qualified PAs are to provide high-quality care. A more accurate title will improve patients’ understanding, which leads to better experiences,” says Orozco.

Pyles-Sweet sees how patients can hesitate to see a PA before knowing more about the profession. “Once patients interact personally with a PA, they understand what we offer and the expertise we bring to the table. I’ve never heard a patient complain about a PA once they saw them.”

The professional title change is good for patients and the healthcare system as a whole.

PAs play a significant role in ensuring patients have access to quality care. More than 99 million Americans lack adequate access to primary care and 160 million lack adequate access to mental healthcare. The healthcare workforce struggles to meet patient demand as the U.S. aging population grows and chronic comorbidities increase. 

The better patients understand how qualified PAs can provide high-quality care, the more PAs are empowered to meet these healthcare gaps. “A more accurate title will improve patients’ understanding, which leads to better patient experiences,” says Orozco. 

As the process unfolds with thoughtful due diligence, AAPA will continue to provide support and resources to state PA organizations, which will determine when and how to pursue PA title change through the legislative and regulatory process.

So, what is the difference between a physician assistant and physician associate? The easy answer is this: there is none.

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