'Physician associate' marks a return to the past

The term "physician associate" is not as new as some might think. 

In 2021, the American Academy of Physician Assistants voted to adopt "physician associate" as the official title for the profession. The organization is now called the American Academy of Physician Associates, but its name — and the new professional title — are not novel.  

Though PAs were first called "physician's assistants" at the advent of the profession in the 1960s, historical records show "physician's associate" was actually used in the 1970s to describe certain brackets of the profession, according to the PA History Society.

The Board of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences issued a report in 1970 classifying PAs in three different categories — types A, B or C — based on their level and depth of training. Type A PAs represented those who were formally trained and graduated from a university PA program.  

"The term 'physician's associate' started to be used at this time for the type A PAs to differentiate them from the rest," a spokesperson for the PA History Society told Becker's

In 1971, AAPA officially changed its name to the American Academy of Physicians' Associates and limited membership to university-trained PAs. Around this time, Durham, N.C.-based Duke University — the birthplace of the PA profession — and six other universities also changed their program names to "physician associate" programs. 

However, AAPA changed its name back to the American Academy of Physician's Assistants in 1973 (officially dropping the apostrophe in 1981) and expanded membership to all PAs after facing pushback from the American Medical Association, according to the PA History Society. While most universities also reverted back to the previous title, Yale University in New Haven, Conn., and the University of Oklahoma in Oklahoma City still use "physician associate" in their program titles today.

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