We are all impacted on a personal level by political decisions – decisions that affect things like our civil rights and the taxes we pay. In addition, PAs are affected professionally by politicians who pass laws, and by political appointees who regulate the PA profession. Most importantly, laws and regulations affect your patients. Every PA has had a patient whose most pressing need was not a different drug or a new therapy, but a change in the law. It is therefore the special obligation of PAs to understand the political process and use that knowledge to advance the interests of their patients and their profession.

There are many different ways that politics impacts the PA profession. State laws, which are the result of a long and sometimes grueling political process, can govern everything from which patients are covered by Medicaid to how many PAs a single physician may supervise. Before Pennsylvania’s legislators passed a law to license physician assistants in 1978, PAs weren’t even allowed to practice here. PAs should know how to work with the legislators who vote on those laws.

The first step is to stay informed. Read the newspaper and keep up with the state’s economy and political climate. Know what health bills are being considered by the legislature and the implications of those bills on health care. The most basic duty of any citizen in a democracy is to vote, and understanding the issues is a prerequisite to casting an informed vote. But knowing the issues backwards and forwards also allows you to take the next political step, which is to influence others.

Introduce yourself to your state legislators, and communicate with them on health care topics when your expertise could be valuable. If you can provide advice to a state senator on public health issues, such as smoking bans or bicycle safety laws, you will find a much more receptive audience when that PA supervision bill is up for consideration down the road. You could also work on a campaign for a candidate who shares your positions on important issues, or even run for office yourself.

Running for office is the pinnacle of political activity. As a PA, you may already know many of the people in your community because they are your patients, hospital or clinic staff and colleagues. You also have a deep understanding of the health care issues that are important to your community, and few issues are more important to voters than health care. You don’t necessarily have to give up clinical practice to run for political office – many governmental positions are compatible with continuing in full time clinical practice – but serving as an elected official gives you the opportunity to influence the health of your community on a much wider scale.

Along with laws passed by elected officials, PA practice is also governed by regulations adopted by appointed officials. Medical Board regulations, along with regulations from other agencies, often impact the PA profession at least as much state laws do. Unlike legislators, who must deal with the entire spectrum of public issues, regulators are focused on one specific area – in this case, medicine – and as such are expert in their field. Nevertheless, it is important for PAs and PA organizations to communicate with regulatory agencies. Attend medical board meetings if they are open to the public and submit comments on proposed regulations.

While it is possible to do these things as an individual, working through a group of PAs like PSPA is much more likely to carry weight with political actors. Working through an organization allows PAs to establish institutional relationships with other health care players in the political process, such as state medical societies and nursing groups. While PAs and other health care professionals may not agree 100% of the time, you’ll find that working together when there is agreement diminishes the frequency and intensity of disagreements on more controversial issues.

As published in the Summer 2009 PSPA News