Focused on People and Problem-Solving: Penn State Hershey’s new PA Program

May 19, 2014 at 7:30 am 1 comment

Andrey Frolov left a job at the University of Kansas Cancer Center and moved halfway across the country to be part of Penn State Hershey’s new graduate-level physician assistant program.

The 38-year-old Russian scientist spent much of his career working in translational cancer research and helped develop a breakthrough drug for treatment of leukemia. While working closely with physicians as part of the clinical trials process for the drug, he realized he wanted to return to patient care.

“I never knew what a physician assistant was or what they were capable of doing before,” he says. “At my age, PA school provides nice flexibility to start practicing in a relatively short period of time.”

Physician assistants are healthcare professionals who are licensed to practice medicine as part of a team approach to healthcare, under the direction of a physician. The scope of what they can do is limited only by the doctor they practice with. Unlike nurse practitioners, who are trained in the nursing model and often specialize, physician assistants are intentionally trained to be medical generalists, extending the care of a physician by spending more time interviewing and counseling patients.

“If you’re okay working as part of a team, not being the highest in command and not having the final say, you have a lot of autonomy,” says Kyle Landis, a 27-year-old former professional baseball player for the Cleveland Indians, who decided to pursue a career as a physician assistant after an injury ended his athletic career.

The PA profession is growing rapidly as demand and eligibility for care increase, while the number of primary care physicians in practice has not. “They are doing some of the things the physicians don’t really have the time to do because they are pulled in so many directions,” says Christine Bruce, director of the new Physician Assistant Program at Penn State College of Medicine.

Penn State Hershey had a PA program in place from 1974 to 1986, but students left their studies with an associate level degree that was misleading and not highly valued at the time. This time around, things are a bit different.

Nearly 2,000 people applied for 30 spots in the program’s inaugural class. Students take 101 credits over the course of 24 consecutive months and graduate with a Master’s degree in Physician Assistant Studies. The program is part of how Penn State Hershey is addressing a demand for better access to care that was identified in a Community Health Needs Assessment completed in 2013.

Jennifer Rodriguez, a 37-year-old four-time Olympic speed skater from Miami with two bronze medals, said once she discovered the physician assistant profession and decided it was a good fit for her, choosing Penn State Hershey for her education was easy.

“The program is state-of-the-art and gives us the ability to study and work alongside the medical students,” she says. “Penn State’s medical school has such a great reputation that I’m sure the PA program will follow in its footsteps.”

In fact, Bruce says the program is the only one in the state that is so intimately linked to a medical school. PA students and med students will share an anatomy class and spend time together in small groups solving case scenarios to get a sense of how professionals in each role think and reason.

“Having taught both med students and PAs, I think they often arrive at the same conclusion, but they get there very differently,” Bruce says. “I think both groups are going to learn a lot from each other.” As the healthcare field moves toward more of a team approach, that collaboration and understanding is key to good care.

“These are not mini doctors coming out,” Bruce says. “They must be able to reason and come up with diagnoses based on things that are more common rather than less common. Yet they have to know what things are life-threatening or dangerous and when a physician needs to intervene.”

Because of the amount of time that physician assistants spend in contact with patients, Bruce asked a core group of 15 patients from her internal medicine practice to interview the program candidates to see how well they handle patient encounters.

“It’s about more than just having medical knowledge,” she says. “If you aren’t connecting with patients, you won’t get those bits of subtle information that are so important in making treatment decisions.”

Yuping Xu was so impressed by the responsibility and skill of physician assistants she encountered when taking a friend to the doctor that she decided it would be a great way for her to get out of medical research and back to the practice of medicine that she left when moving to the United States from China in 2000.

At 46, the Hummelstown resident may be the oldest member of the class, but she is excited for the new stage in her career. “I have shadowed some PAs, and I really like what they do. They have more time to interact,” she says. “Plus, I have a daughter going to high school and this would probably give me better life and career balance.”

Gale Dahlager, a 44-year-old former computer programmer for Microsoft, became an emergency medical technician after retiring from a career as a professional athlete for down-hill mountain biking and skier-cross. The Colorado native enjoyed helping those who were sick or injured and always wanted to know more about how the body worked.

“I often felt like the doctors just wanted to follow their set script of how they wanted to treat me regardless of my situation or goals,” she says.  “The PA profession also offers me the problem solving aspect I loved about being a computer programmer, but it is centered around people and improving their lives, which is much more rewarding.”

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