Physician assistant name change rubs doctors the wrong way

Much like many other news items, I came upon the one about the proposed name change for Physician Assistants quite by accident: it came to me as an e-mail notification of a new topic being discussed on one of the physician only discussion boards that I am a part of. Apparently, after 40+ years of the profession’s existence, there is a grassroots effort afoot to upgrade the name, and presumably the clout, to Physician Associate.

Well, as you can imagine, while the move is met with praise by the PA profession, the MD profession is seething. Some of the comments that I have seen from my colleagues betray such tremendous pain and suffering as a profession that it threatens my equanimity: I feel organically how lost we are as a profession to be expressing such bile without much thought over what appears to be a relatively innocuous event.

But surprised I am not, and here is why. The medical profession’s victory over all other potential modalities is hard-won and filled with a history of major turf battles and occasional demagoguery. The historically either-or approach of modern-day practice of medicine is responsible for the current landscape of our healthcare. In short, physicians have been only too successful at becoming the final word in health, at the exclusion of all others.

With the allied providers, such as nurse practitioners and PAs, gaining in importance, particularly at this time of great uncertainty about the future of our healthcare “system”, understandably the MDs are reflexively bracing themselves for any and all turf battles. So, the perception of a power grab that this proposed name change has engendered in my hallowed profession is a classic fight-or-flight response, an activation of the survival instinct.

There are several aspects of this response that I find disturbing. At the most basic level, the response betrays such tremendous emotional pain among so many good people that it is all I can do to keep myself from sinking into a depression. And while I feel compassion for them, I am also forced to remind them that, as Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Applying the thought to the current situation, how the society may view PAs, whether they are called assistants or associates, should have absolutely no bearing on how physicians are perceived. Simply put, this perceived elevation in the status of the PAs relative to that of the MDs should not in any way make the MD profession diminish in its or the public’s view.

The next layer of why this is a dysfunctional response lies in a poor choice of battles that this represents. I once had a boss, whom, despite working for myself currently, I frequently allude to as “the best boss I have ever had.” When I would get hot under the collar, she would pointedly ask me to clarify for myself whether this was an issue to fall on my dagger for, thus teaching me that falling on my dagger too many times would make me politically into Swiss cheese, or, worse yet, dead.

Under the circumstances, do MDs and their organizations really feel that this is an important dagger to fall on? In the current atmosphere of public distrust rightly or wrongly bestowed upon the profession, such indiscriminate issue picking will rightfully appear self-serving.

Finally, for a profession with, on average, a very high intelligence quotient, I am amazed that we are focusing on the minutia instead of looking at the big picture. Healthcare is a behemoth, an inefficient and inequitable trough at which there has been a feeding frenzy for too long. We need to be reining it in to the best of our abilities. And yes, altruism, not unmitigated self-interest should be driving us to do this. Gentleness toward and respect for each other, our communities and our planet should be the values that determine our actions as a profession. I am convinced that these are the values that brought us into medicine.

These are difficult times, made more so by the external forces all ganging up to deprive us of our humanity. Let’s get back to the reasons why we went into medicine; let’s sit quietly and find that lost thread of contentment and pride. Or else, if there is no joy left for you in your practice, resolve to find something else that you can be happy about. And no, it is not easier said than done. It is much more difficult to go through life carrying the baggage of self-imposed misery than to set it down in favor of finding happiness in this brief sojourn that is our life.

Marya Zilberberg is founder and CEO of EviMed Research Group and blogs at Healthcare, etc.

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