One of the most frustrating aspects of being a PA is having to explain, to just about everybody, what you actually do. When I was in school the program directors and faculty brushed over the fact that a PA will need to be able to articulate their function in the clinic to patients. I naively thought this would be a random occurrence that was isolated to a few patients here and there.


I find that I have to explain what a PA does to patients at least 3-4 times a week. Add to that the 3-6 times a month that I break down what we do to non-patients (friends, family, acquaintances). I have even had to repeat the same explanation to the same patient twice, on two separate visits (He counts twice). As you can see, it starts to feel like nobody knows what a PA is or what we do. The scenario I see the most is when I walk into the exam room, introduce myself and in response I get the proverbial deer in the headlights look.
I stare at them; they stare at me.
On cue….3….2….1.
They ask, “What’s a PA?”

This then triggers my Pavlovian response describing what a PA is.

(Make sure to find out the nine top reasons to become a Physician Assistant!)

It can be a bit disheartening to constantly be reminded that most people have no idea what your identity is as a healthcare provider. Think about it, if you told everyone you were a plumber, politician, or even a garbage collector nobody would question what you did for a living. You have spent countless hours studying and working to achieve a lofty goal of becoming a PA and very few people outside of healthcare know what you do. Unfortunately this really gets to some PA’s that I know. They become agitated when asked “What’s a PA?”

This is something for you up-and-coming PA’s to seriously consider. If you go to medical school and become a Physician not a single person will ask you “What’s a Doctor?” It’s important for you to understand that becoming a PA will force you to continually explain your chosen profession. Don’t take it personal; use it as a tool to elevate yourself and your occupation. I would also encourage existing PA’s to use this opportunity to truly educate your patients about PA’s and how we function in health care. It does slow you down a bit in clinic, but the PR from this will only elevate our field in the minds of patients.

Personally, my approach to this question is pretty straight forward. I will first let them know about the schooling that it takes to become a PA. I make sure to reinforce that it is a Masters level degree that follows a medical school model. I then lay out for them what I actually do at the clinic. I always make sure to let them know that if they are uncomfortable with my clinical ability to let me know and I can arrange an appointment with my SP (supervising physician for you newbies). I make sure to ask if they have any questions about PA’s and what we do, including advising them to call if they have additional questions after they leave my clinic.

Taking the extra time to explain how PA’s function has served me well in building a relationship with my patients. It allows patients to get comfortable with you as a clinician. It is so worth the extra time it takes to explain it fully.

Just be glad we are not Sommeliers (yes, it’s a real job). Talk about having to explain what you do.

  1. trishx3 says:

    Patients always ask me if they are going to have to wait for their RX til the Dr. gets in the clinic, and I end up having to explain to them everything a PA can do in the office and help them understand as well. But I think that because I or anyone else for that matter has to explain what a PA is that people eventually will be more familiar with them. I also think that a majority of people feel that PAs don’t know as much about medicine as doctors do, and it does “irk” my nerves a little because PAs have to study and learn too. I just wish everyone would have a little more confidence in the PAs who treat them instead of thinking they have no clue what they are talking about. A lot of PAs are actually very smart, I know a few of them myself.

    • qfwm2001 says:

      Trish, you sound as though you are on the front lines of health care. The only way society will began to understand and have confidence in Physician Assistants is by educating them about the profession. You do this every time a patient asks about getting their RX. Hats off to you and thank you for spreading the word.

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