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SDPA Replies to The New York Times Article About PAs

Recently the New York Times published an in-depth article about PAs called “The Physician Assistant Will See You.” The article covered the type of education that a PA receives, discussed the collaborative nature of the PA/Physician relationship, and mentioned many positive aspects of PAs working in healthcare. However, the article did have some misconceptions and mistakes. SDPA Immediate Past President, Jennifer Winter, wrote a letter to the New York Times to address some of the errors and speculations of the article.
Dear Editor,
A recent article in the New York Times entitled “The Physician Assistant Will See You” has the potential to raise awareness of the PA profession. That is a good thing because the PA profession is growing by leaps and bounds and most patients are likely to encounter a PA at some point when seeking medical care. The more the public understands about those who care for them, the better. Accurate information is critical to the education process.
One paragraph in the article references a survey commissioned by the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). The article suggests that the survey indicated that PAs are not well embraced by patients. Clicking the link originally lead me to the AAFP website and an announcement of the survey results in December 2013. 
The actual survey (found here) did not address the relationship between patients and PAs. The survey did ask which type of provider people would prefer to see and the results were as follows:
Physician – strongly                56%
Physician – not so strongly      16%
NP – strongly                           4%
NP – not so strongly                 3%
No preference                         16%
Don’t know                               5%
To say that PAs are not embraced based on the results of this survey is speculation. That same question was asked again following a paragraph describing NP training, to see if the responders changed their opinion. They did and the answers are as follows:
Physician – strongly                49%
Physician – not so strongly      17%
NP – strongly                           8%
NP – not so strongly                 6%
No preference                         14%
Don’t know                               5%
It is clear that education can change minds. However, education based on inaccurate information will lead to inaccurate opinions, which are not constructive in improving public health nor in creating better patient-provider relationships.
The article goes on to suggest that PAs role in mental health care is one of the reasons misdiagnoses, underdiagnoses, and the over-prescription of antidepressants have flooded the mental health system. Unfortunately the author does not provide any supporting documentation that PA practice is the cause of these changes versus other factors such as direct to consumer advertising or the influence of large numbers of war veterans returning to civilian life. Unsupported speculation such as this is not only not helpful to the discussion, but potentially unfairly damaging.
The Society of Dermatology Physician Assistants fully supports adequate training of any provider, physician, PA, or NP prior to autonomous practice. For the PA, this additional training occurs after graduation under the direction of a supervising physician whose duty it is to ensure the PA is well trained before increasing their level of autonomy. It is in the best interests of all that accurate information is available to help the public better understand the roles of the many different providers who they may encounter in the team sport that medicine now is.
On behalf of the Society of Dermatology Physician Assistants,
Jennifer Winter, MSPAS, PA-C
SDPA Immediate Past President

Image: Alec Perkins