The physician assistant role, though now over 50 years old, is considered relatively new among healthcare professions.
Due to a combination of the demand for providers and the growing popularity of the field, it's also one of the fastest growing careers with employment of PAs expected to grow another 37% between 2016 and 2026.
Though the demand for providers helps to facilitate the growth of the profession, much of the usefulness of PAs — the level of care we're able to deliver to our patients and how much income we can create for our employers — started as grassroots efforts.
The creation of a non-physician provider role was spearheaded by a couple of physicians who had independent visions for how patient care could be expanded. But not every effort to build a training program worked. A failed attempt to receive accreditation for a nurse provider training program is what eventually led to the conception of the first PA program.
Continued advocacy is what pushed things forward, and it's also what has continued to advance the PA profession into what it is today.
Expanding the scope of practice, receiving reasonable insurance reimbursement, and the adoption of PAs within healthcare models have all been the result of advocacy for the profession by individuals as well as state and national organizations.
Often, "advocacy" can feel like something to be left to the professionals— organizations that are knowledgable about how to advance the PA profession or committees dedicated to particular issues PAs are facing.
But being an advocate for the PA field can be much simpler than joining the hierarchy of a major PA organization and lobbying Congress.
While there are a few dozen PAs positioned to make a significant contribution to the profession by serving in the leadership of professional organizations, there are another nearly 123,000 PAs and ten of thousands of future PAs who can collectively promote the PA role with considerably less individual effort.
Whether you're a PA or a future PA, there are opportunities for advocacy within reach that won't put a strain on your schedule or pile more onto your already heavy workload.
Here are a few simple actions that could help to elevate the practice and advance the excellent reputation of physician assistants without requiring a significant commitment of your time or effort.
1. Be ready with your "why"
Explaining your reasons for wanting to be a PA or why you love being a PA can change with your audience — you'd probably describe it differently to your grandma that you would in a PA school interview.
But, whether you're describing your reasons to a family member or a patient there can be a common theme: being PA-positive.
Framing your answer to why you want to be a PA or why you became one can be a great, simple way of advocating for the profession, but only if you do it well.
Responding with a PA-positive answer means that you focus on what being a PA gives you the opportunity to do, rather than what it's not.
Becoming a PA allows you to focus on extensive clinical training and be ready to see patients fairly independently in a matter of two years.
Becoming a PA also means you don't have to have to spend four years in a classroom before moving on to the next phase of training, as physicians do.
These statements both describe the same thing, but one paints the picture of opportunity while the other explains why you don't want to go to medical school. One makes you sound excited to get out in the world and start seeing patients, while the other may be interpreted as you not wanting to work quite so hard for the opportunity.
The framing of your "why" matters. It matters in PA school interview responses and when you present your chosen profession to the world.
Telling people about becoming a PA shouldn't sound like an apology for why you don't want to be a doctor.
No one who goes to medical school feels the need to explain their choice through the lens of not becoming a nurse. And nurses aren't routinely asked why they didn't go to medical school.
They are related professions and both incredibly valuable, but they are different.
Likewise, the role of a physician assistant has its own unique place in medicine. Using your "why" as an opportunity to demonstrate this helps to promote the profession.
So it's important to think about how you'd describe your reasons for wanting to be a PA or why you became one in PA-positive way.
This explanation will shift over time, and it should. As a PA student, your "why" might describe how elements of your training are having an impact on the care you'll deliver.
After nearly 13 years as a PA, I now get to share how my position as a PA gives me the opportunity to focus almost entirely on direct patient care, which is an experience-based answer that I didn't have back in my application days.
When you frame your "why" as the opportunities that being a PA gives you rather than what it's not, you're showing others the potential of PAs.
2. Get connected
Another easy way to support physician assistants is to become a member of your specialty, state, and national PA organizations.
Along with supporting leaders in these organizations working to drive the PA role forward, your memberships also give you the chance to stay up to date on issues influencing PA practice and to lend your voice to a broader discussion.
As a student, joining PA-centered organizations will help you to learn about issues in PA practice that you likely won't learn much about in your training.
Once you're a practicing PA, keep an eye out for simple ways to support the profession. Take the few moments to copy and paste a letter in support of PA-friendly legislation to send to your local representative when an organization asks members for help.
Respond to surveys from state and national PA organizations. They're asking for a good reason.
The annual AAPA Salary Survey is used by many employers to assess the competitiveness of PA salaries. The data in the survey come from practicing PAs who respond to an email request to share information about their compensation.
The more information gathered, the greater the accuracy of the report, and the more competitive PA salaries will be.
Of course, being involved in PA organizations can mean a whole lot more if you choose, but merely joining, reading the occasional email, and taking a few moments of your time when asked genuinely helps to support the profession.
3. Do excellent work
There's a funny little phenomenon when it comes to a patient's experience with PAs.
If someone has limited exposure to PAs and they have a great experience with one, we all get the credit. When one of these kinds of patients finds out I'm a PA, they tell me about their lovable primary care PA who's taken care of them for years.
However, when a patient has limited exposure to PAs and has a bad experience, we all suffer. To that patient, every PA they encounter will be met with skepticism for at least years to come, if not forever.
Having a fantastic nurse doesn't usually lead a patient to believe that every nurse is amazing. And having a suboptimal experience with a doctor doesn't normally cast a shadow on the entire physician profession.
PAs have been around a long time now, but we're newborns compared to doctors and nurses.
In the world of patient opinion, PAs tend to sink or swim together.
I've coasted off of the good reputation of another PA more than my fair share of times, and I hope that I, too, have allowed a few others similarly to reap the benefits of my work.
So, your job is not to ruin it for everyone.
Even if you're far away from becoming a PA, your good habits as a future PA can impact the field.
When you're engaged, curious, and hard working in your pre-PA patient care role, others will attribute those characteristics to people who hope to become PAs.
When you ask questions that reveal your knowledge deficits as a PA student, your willingness to be vulnerable in order to grow reflects well on the profession.
When you take time to listen and connect with patients and serve them well, whether you're a current PA or a five-year-from-now PA, the PA role as a whole captures a bit of that goodwill.
This most basic level of advocacy is available to every one of us in our daily work.
It's how the PAs before us helped lay the groundwork for us to enjoy working in a role with a good reputation, and it's how we can all do our part to contribute to the status of the field while delivering excellent care to our patients.
4. Do one more thing
As promised, all of the ways you can advocate for the PA profession up to this point have been easily doable, and so is this one. Do one more thing.
You can decide if it's big or small, but what one more thing could you do to help out the profession?
If you're a PA student preceptor, could you take on a student for one additional clinical rotation this year?
Or if you're a PA student, could you talk to a college pre-health club or a group of high schoolers about the PA career?
If you're a future PA, could you help staff the booth for your state PA organization's community health fair?
Every effort to educate others about the PA profession or help out the next generation of PAs is advocacy. Imagine the influence that one more simple act of support, multiplied by tens of thousands of individuals, could have on championing the PA field.
Big or small, what could be your one more thing?
The PAs dedicated to advancing the profession through organized, professional channels have done tremendous work to move the profession forward, and every PA has benefited from their efforts.
But advocacy for the PA profession doesn't require a leadership position or years of experience.
Every PA and future PA has the resources to promote the PA field and can start using these simple, approachable steps for the good of all PAs and the generations of PAs that follow.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016–2017 Edition, Physician Assistants. https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/physician-assistants.html Updated April 13, 2018.