Why Bill O'Reilly Got it Wrong About Physician Assistants

March 14, 2014

Physicians must join physician assistants (PAs) in addressing misconceptions and misinformation about the PA profession.

Hundreds of physician assistants (PAs) were outraged enough to reach out to FOX News anchor Bill O’Reilly and “The O’Reilly Factor" staff this week to correct misinformation about PAs and nurse practitioners (NPs).

On March 4, O’Reilly said of PAs and NPs working in retail clinics that he didn’t want “Lenny, who just came out of the community college,” providing his medical care. This set off a firestorm of concern on all of the social media networks by PAs, NPs and others.

Now, as a PA who did, in fact, graduate from a community college certificate program 33 years ago, I took total offense at O’Reilly’s comments. I have since obtained both a bachelor's and graduate degree, and the majority of my PA colleagues have master’s degrees obtained through their PA programs. Today, the vast majority of PA programs award master’s degrees.

My real concern, though, is less with his ignorance and more with the fact that all medical providers are likely not doing enough to respect, recognize, and promote the value of each team member. There are real dangers with O’Reilly’s erroneous portrayal of the training and abilities of PAs and other providers in the current healthcare workforce.

I would not have thought much about it, except for the fact the millions in his audience may take his opinions and flippant statements as absolute facts. I felt that he did a significant disservice to all of the dedicated people currently struggling to deliver care to our country’s diverse populations and communities.

I never hesitate to talk with my patients about how PAs are educated and trained because it’s compelling stuff.

PAs practice medicine. And to do so, we are educated through rigorous programs wherein we are trained to diagnose, treat, and prescribe. A PA’s education is modeled on the medical school curriculum, a combination of classroom and clinical instruction, including a minimum of 2,000 hours of rotations. Averaging 26 months long, the PA course of study is rigorous and intense.

Admission to PA school is highly competitive and prerequisites are harder and harder to meet. Applicants to PA programs must complete at least two years of college courses in basic science and behavioral science as prerequisites to PA school, analogous to premedical studies required of medical students. Additionally, most PA programs require or prefer that applicants have four years of prior healthcare experience.

There are more than 95,000 PAs in the workforce today and they practice medicine in every setting and specialty. There are currently 181 accredited PA programs in the United States, the vast majority award master’s degrees.

Our profession is young, though: We’ve only been around since 1967. So, we still encounter misconceptions about our education and the quality medicine we practice. 

One of the best ways PAs can “set the record straight” is by practicing quality medicine. By design, PAs practice medicine in concert with physicians, and this team model is an efficient way to provide high-quality medical care.

But we need physicians, PAs, and every member of the healthcare team operating at the top of their training to ensure that needed medical care is delivered to all Americans. We also need our colleagues to cross promote the values and experience of all healthcare providers.

Have you noticed non-media people with influence who spout misinformation about PAs, NPs, MDs, DOs, RNs or anyone else on the healthcare team? How about a patient who asked, “What is a PA?” How did you answer? Did you take time to address misconceptions?

While I am sure that Mr. O’Reilly’s e-mail inbox and Facebook page are full of corrections from PAs, how much more emphatic would the response be if physicians added their voices to the correction? A good deal, I bet. If you are unfamiliar with all that a PA can do, just reach out to one on your team or in your hospital and ask.

Addressing misconceptions and misinformation as a team - just like we practice medicine together - can only help to improve the knowledge our patients have, even if those patients are popular news anchors.

This blog was provided in partnership with the American Academy of Physician Assistants.