How to address a physician assistant

How to Address a Physician Assistant

It can be a little confusing to know how to address a physician assistant.

I’ve been working as a physician assistant (PA / PA-C) since 2014, and I’ve been addressed quite a few different ways over the years.

For the most part, it’s not a big deal, and we get used to people not really quite knowing how to address us. 

In this post, I’ll see if I can clear up any confusion and help you know the best way to address PA’s in various settings.

Addressing a Physician Assistant vs Addressing a Doctor 

In case you weren’t sure, physician assistants are basically the same thing as doctors.

Sure, we don’t spend as many years in school, and most of us don’t do a residency.  But in the end, the job we do is pretty much identical–at least in outpatient settings (like a family practice clinic, for example).  

(If you’re talking about an operating room, or an emergency room, there are some more significant differences between what PA’s and doctors normally do.  But that’s not really the topic of this post.)

I bring this up because everyone seems to know how to address a doctor.

They just say, “Dr. So-and-so”.

So if PA’s are pretty much the same as doctors, should we address them the same way?

Actually, the answer is yes. 

If you want to address a PA in a somewhat formal manner, you simply say “PA” and then their last name, just like you would do with a doctor.

For example, if their last name is Smith, you would call them “PA Smith”. 

You can’t really ever go wrong with that approach.

(Technically, you could also call them “physician assistant Smith”. But that’s a lot of syllables, so nobody ever really does that.)

In Person, Address a physician assistant by their first name

Even though it’s always correct–or at least acceptable–to address a  physician assistant by their formal title (like “PA Smith”), in everyday life most people just call us by our first names.

For example, when I meet a new patient in the ER, I typically say, “Hi, I’m Ben.  I’m a PA.  I’ll be in charge of your care in the emergency room today.”

After that, they usually just call me Ben.

The same goes for co-workers–doctors, nurses, technicians, and pretty much anyone else I work with calls me by my first name as well. And that’s how I like it.

Most other PA’s are the same way.

Sure, from time to time someone will say “PA Tanner”  if they don’t really know me, or if they’re  going out of their way to be respectful.  But this is more the exception than the rule.

Here’s the bottom line.

In person, you can just about always call a PA by their first name, and it’s no problem.

One Co-worker Who Disagrees

While calling  physician assistants by their first name in person is a pretty good rule of thumb, not everyone agrees with this.

For example, I have one physician assistant colleague who gets perturbed when staff members call her by her first name. She prefers to be called “PA [last name]”, like the formal approach I explained above.

I think she views this as a sign of respect, and something that will kind of help us be seen on the same plane as doctors.

I always kind of chuckle when I hear about this, just because I don’t really care about it that much (and neither do most of the other PA’s that I know).

How to Address a Physician Assistant in a Letter 

How to address a physician assistant in a letter

So we’ve talked about addressing PA’s in person, but what about in a letter?

Going back to the doctor comparison, if you were to write a letter to a doctor, you would probably address them as “Dr. So-and-so”.

As I mentioned previously, PA’s are usually called by their first name in person.

But letters are different – for one thing, the person writing the letter often doesn’t even know the PA they’re writing too.  So using the first name might seem a little too informal, or even disrespectful.

When I get letters, I’ve found that if people aren’t sure what to say, they often default to writing “Mr. Tanner”.  

Here’s my opinion on that:  It’s dumb.

Sure, if it’s a letter from someone that knows nothing about me, and they don’t even know I’m a PA, then it makes sense to say “Mr. Tanner”.

But if they know I’m a PA, and if they’re writing me in that capacity (like when my employer contacts me for any reason), why not just say, “PA Tanner”?

I guess people just aren’t sure what to say, so they try to be very general by using “Mr.” or “Mrs.”.  

Here’s the bottom line:

If you’re writing a letter to a physician assistant, it’s probably better to address them as “PA Smith” than “Mr. Smith”.  

It’s a little more respectful, and it shows that you know whom you’re talking to.

If you’re good buddies with the PA, you can usually just call them by their first name, even in a letter. But we’re mainly talking about a situation where you’re writing a letter to a PA that you don’t know, and you want to be respectful.

Conclusion – Summary

It can be a little confusing to know how to address a physician assistant.

Let me sum it up here in the conclusion.

In person, you can typically address a PA by their first name.  If you want to try and be extra respectful, you can also say “PA Smith”.  But generally this isn’t necessary. 

If you’re writing a letter, it’s probably best to address them as “PA Smith”, rather than “Mr.” or “Mrs.”.

Using the first name in a letter might seem a little too informal, or disrespectful – especially if you don’t really know the person.  And saying “Mr.” or “Mrs.” in a letter kind of implies that you don’t really know what a PA is.

Hopefully that was helpful!  If you still have any lingering questions, feel free to get in touch. 🙂