USF Health welcomes the charter class for physician assistant program [video]

The USF Health Physician Assistant (PA) Program officially started May 8 when 30 students – the inaugural class – gathered in a lecture hall to begin their classes.

The excitement was palpable – faculty and administrators eagerly welcomed each student who arrived at the first-day orientation and students were all smiles as they came in and greeted each other.

The day many had been waiting for and working toward had finally arrived.

“We are more than excited for you all to be here,” said Todd Wills, MD, assistant dean and founding director of USF Health’s PA Program, in his welcoming remarks to the new class. “We have no doubt you’re going to succeed – you’re in a fantastic place where the facilities and faculty are top-notch.”

Dr. Todd Wills welcomes the charter class to the PA Program.

The USF Health PA Program was established to help meet the growing demand for health care providers, especially those in primary care. The program earned provisional accreditation in fall 2016, opening the application process and assuring applicants of a quality program.

The 30 students in the charter class include 21 women and 9 men. They were chosen from more than 1,500 applicants (50 to 1 ratio, or 2 percent). Of the 30 new students 23 are from Florida and seven from out of state.

Being part of a charter class is uncommon, said Bryan A. Bognar, MD, MPH, FACP, vice dean for Educational Affairs for the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine, at the start of the orientation.

“There is only one charter class,” Dr. Bognar said to the new students. “USF Health has seen phenomenal growth and you, sitting here today, are part of our continued growth.”

Dr. Bryan Bognar kicks off the first day for the USF Health PA Program.

In assuring them of the work ahead in the program, he added “This PA program is unparalleled.”

This first group includes many who saw the quality of USF Health’s program and were eager to be in the inaugural group. That includes first-year student Kelly Powell. Originally from Mississippi, Powel spent the past year in New York City as a medical assistant for a dermatology practice. She said she was confident when applying to the USF Health PA program because of its affiliation with the Morsani College of Medicine, the experience of its faculty, and the facilities that would be part of her training.

“Being part of the first class could be intimidating – they expect a lot out of you – but the big benefit is that they are flexible and want feedback for how to improve the program,” Powell said.

Also in the first class is Jensen Jozil, who saw the impact a PA can have on patient care when his mother needed emergency care at a hospital.

“I was really impressed,” said Jozil, a graduate of USF’s biomedical sciences program. “The PA was managing the entire case with professionalism and was a good source of knowledge for my mom’s condition. That’s when I really knew I wanted to be a PA.”

PA students spend a few minutes meeting each other before first-day orientation.

That kind of impact is just what program administrators were aiming for, said Charles J. Lockwood, MD, MHCM, senior vice president of USF Health and dean of the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine.

“Physician assistants are on the frontline of patient care,” Dr. Lockwood said. “They work more closely with physicians than probably anyone else. They are trained to provide outstanding care for patients, to be able to assist physicians in operating rooms, as well as to provide primary care.”

The demand for PAs is huge, Dr. Lockwood added, and the statistics bear him out. The U.S. Department of Labor projects physician assistant jobs to grow 30 percent by 2024. Upon earning their certification, 63 percent of PAs accepted a clinical position and 75 percent of those received multiple job offers, according to a 2014 report by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants.

“There is a significant shortage of physicians, an extraordinary shortage of nurses, so the demand for physician assistants is enormous,” Dr. Lockwood said. “There are lot of programs that are being developed. There are very few, however, that are so well-grounded in academic practice as ours. And we think we’ll be able to provide our PA students with tools that will set them apart from other PA programs and lead to more exciting and interesting careers.”

Dr. Gretchen Koehler (center) welcomes the first-year PA students.

A PA program can offer a straightforward path to the profession, said Gretchen Koehler, PhD, associate vice president for USF Health and senior associate dean for Academics and Institutional Effectiveness for the Morsani College of Medicine.

“We are so pleased to be able to offer students another degree program, particularly one that is a two-year curriculum culminating with a terminal master’s degree, the highest degree awarded in the field,” Dr. Koehler said.

“The students in this program will be supported by the extensive USF Health network of faculty and providers. They will also participate in our intentionally designed team training sessions that bring all USF Health learners together. This model of learning capitalizes on the students’ shared interest in health and health care and allows them to more fully develop their unique areas of expertise.”

That interprofessional approach to learning is what attracted many of the charter students, along with USF Health’s training facilities, Dr. Wills said.

“Faculty and staff at USF Health set out to build a PA program that leveraged all of the strengths that already exist at USF Health and to deliver a dynamic curriculum to our first group of students,” Dr. Wills said.

“Among the strengths that exist here is a focus on interprofessional education. Unlike other PA programs, at USF Health students get to be in close proximity with nursing, public health, medical, and pharmacy students – exactly who they will collaborate with in the health care careers of the future. One thing we’ve noticed as health care has evolved is that no one practices in a silo anymore. Teamwork is especially important. So, from Day One, we are teaching our PA students how to be part of that team, to contribute to it with all of their expertise.”

USF Health PA Larry Collins gives new PA students a tour of the simulation lab.

Working in teams is the reality in today’s health care workplace, said Larry Collins, MPAS, PA-C, ATC, assistant professor of orthopaedics and sports medicine at USF Health and a faculty member for the USF Health PA Program.

“We work with physicians in a team setting along with nurse practitioners, pharmacists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and other health care providers to make sure that our families have the best health care they can get in our communities,” Collins said.

He also sees a PA career as being incredibly flexible.

“We’re trained as generalists, recertify as generalists every 10 years, and in doing so we have the opportunity to change our areas of specialty,” Collins said. “I have several colleagues and classmates from PA school who have switched to positions throughout their careers. They’re in a role they love, say the ER, but feel they need something different and they go work in a family practice setting, or maybe a dermatology setting.”

The new PA students in orientation on their first day at USF Health.

Back in the classroom, at the PA Program orientation, 30 people are sitting together as one inaugural class. Dr. Bognar notes the significance of the moment and reminds them to depend on each other.

“You are going to be a close-knit family,” Dr. Bognar said. “You’re going to pick one another up when you’re down, and you’re going to be together to celebrate your high points.”

The fact that the USF Health PA Program is new is not a problem for these inaugural students.

“It doesn’t feel like a new program – there’s no mad scramble,” Jozil said. “The admissions process has been very smooth.”

“Even in the interview, you could feel the excitement they have for the program,” said first-year PA student Ivana Karaban.

“It’s amazing and I’m really excited to be here,” Karaban said. “It feels incredible to be making history.”

The charter class for the USF Health PA Program.

Story by Sarah Worth, photos by Freddie Coleman, video by Sandra C. Roa, USF Health Communications