Apr 18, 2024 - News

Oregon physician associates ditch "assistant" tag

Illustration of a name tag that says Physician Assistant with a new label over assistant that says associate

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Physician assistants in Oregon have won the right to rebrand themselves as physician associates and will start using the titles on their licenses starting in June.

Why it matters: PAs are growing in prominence in the health care system amid a nationwide physician shortage and they have long sought recognition.

Driving the news: Oregon became the first state to allow PAs to use the title on their licenses. Updated guidelines on coordinating and managing care will follow.

  • Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek signed the new law changing the name earlier this month.
  • The title change won't affect how PAs are paid, said Alisa Gifford, president of the Oregon Society of Physician Associates.

What they're saying: "Frankly, we get asked all the time, 'So you're a junior doctor, are you going to graduate from med school soon?'" she said.

  • "It's important to show them that we're associates, we are professionals."

Yes but: Critics say it blurs the lines between doctors and other health professionals, leaving patients confused and making it easier for PAs to pursue independent practice.

  • "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," the American Medical Association said in a statement.
  • Providence Portland Medical Center, Legacy Health and Oregon Health & Science University did not provide comments by Axios' publication deadline.

Zoom out: MDs have more authority than physician assistants and nurse practitioners, even though the latter two can both prescribe drugs and make decisions about treatment.

  • RNs (registered nurses) have more clout than medical assistants — usually the person who takes vitals — who in turn are above nursing assistants.
  • "It is a big deal because many times patients are confused by the word assistant, they don't realize we treat and diagnose their illnesses the same way a physician does," Linda Dale, the president of the Washington Academy of Physician Assistants, told Axios.

Flashback: Dale said PAs emerged after the Vietnam War when returning military medics needed work. The first program was at Duke University, the second at the University of Washington.

The big picture: PAs and other advanced practice providers will outnumber physician primary care providers in all U.S. markets by 2031, according to Advisory Board modeling shared with Axios.

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