Since graduating from PA school, I have worked in Urgent Care and Emergency Medicine. Throughout my career, I’ve witnessed the crucial role APPs play in providing quality care to patients, particularly in these dynamic fields. We have saturated the field in many settings, and you rarely see a medical doctor in urgent care. This situation leads to the question that has become routine in my interaction with patients: “Are you my doctor”? This question always makes me chuckle. What is the appropriate reply? In this article, I’ll discuss my response to patients, the root of the problem, and how our response to this question can impact our patients and their healthcare experience.

The Scenario

I walk into a patient’s room and introduce myself; I say something like: “Hey there, my name is Heather Zamarron. I am the PA taking care of you today; what’s going on?” Expecting them to start naming off their complaints, I am always taken aback when their first question is, “Are you the doctor?” I believe this is more innocence than maliciousness. They just want to know if they’ve finally reached the last person to whom they’ll repeat their story. Some providers might find this question offensive or unsettling, unsure how to respond without sounding uncertain of their abilities. So, how do I handle it?

My Go-To Response

“No, sir/ma’am, I am not a doctor, but I am a PA and the provider taking care of you. What can I help you with today?” This response, while direct, avoids unnecessary complexities in the doctor vs. PA debate. It answers the patient’s immediate question and conveys confidence in my ability to address their needs promptly.

The Patient’s Reaction

99% of the time, this is sufficient, and the patient starts telling me about the ailments they want help with. However, 1% of the time, you will get follow-up questions. “Did you go to medical school?” “Is there a doctor I could see instead?” or my favorite, “So, you are basically a doctor?”. These statements underscore a broader issue in healthcare.

The Problem

The challenge lies in patients’ prevailing need for more education and understanding regarding their healthcare experiences and expectations. Although progress is being made, especially with increased exposure to Advanced Practice Providers (APPs), there remains a significant knowledge gap about the difference between a PA and an MD. This gap is partially due to societal stereotypes of the term “doctor.” APPs are integral to the healthcare system, but the general public needs more awareness of healthcare roles. They won’t understand the difference between a Medical Assistant and a Nurse or a Pre-op Nurse and a Surgeon. So, it is asking a lot for them to understand the difference between two medical professionals who practice independently and can almost do the same things.

Doctors are still portrayed as the central figures of healthcare, especially in TV shows and the media, which doesn’t help our case when educating our patients on our role as APPs. I’m not sure if we can ever expect this to change, but I don’t think it has to for us to bridge the knowledge gap with our patients, increase their understanding of healthcare hierarchies, and improve their experiences.

The Opportunity

Education

As providers, we have the opportunity and obligation to educate our patients on their disease process and to influence their perception of the healthcare system. We can affect that negatively by not doing what is right for the patient, ignoring their concerns, or causing harm. Or, we can do our best to be patient-centered and keep the patient first. When faced with the “Are you the doctor?” question, we must remain confident in our abilities. Responding with, “No, but I am capable of taking care of you today and am educated in this field,” is not just about clarification; it’s an opportunity to instill confidence.

Healthcare Hierarchy

I also think it’s an opportunity to show our patients our role in healthcare. I am not naive to believe that I am better/smarter/just as good as the doctors I know. You have to realize they start day 1 with several more years of experience than I have or did have when I first started. However, I can acknowledge the difference in experience while emphasizing the synergy between APPs and Physicians, which ultimately benefits patient care. I like to showcase collaboration using one of my favorite lines: “I am going to run this by my Supervising Physician; he is an ER doctor and owns these clinics.” It shows my patients my collaboration with him and hopefully gives them confidence that I will ask questions if I am unsure.

APP Roles

Moreover, as APPs, we should encourage each other to seek roles in environments where our contributions are valued. I am appreciative that my work experiences in the hospital and urgent care have valued the role we play, and I haven’t ever felt used and abused. Unfortunately, that isn’t the story everywhere. Choosing a workspace that appreciates your autonomy and respects your role will increase job satisfaction. So be diligent about who you work with, and make sure they appreciate what you bring to the table.

Conclusion

In the world of healthcare, where patient perceptions can significantly shape the care experience, the question, “Are you the Doctor?” is not a stumbling block but an open door. Instead of taking offense, embrace it as an opportunity to radiate confidence to your patients. Take a moment to shed light on the collaborative dynamics between PAs and supervising physicians. After all, this is modern healthcare; we aren’t going anywhere, and neither are doctors. Recognize that your patients, despite their familiarity with medical settings, often need help understanding healthcare organizations. Be that knowledge for them, especially if they are genuinely interested.

I invite you to share your thoughts and opinions on this matter. How do you navigate the “Are you the doctor?” question, and what insights have you gained from these interactions? Your perspectives are valuable, and I’d love to hear differing opinions. Thank you for taking the time to read this article. If you found this content engaging, insightful, or helpful, consider subscribing below for more articles on navigating the dynamic landscape of business and medicine.