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Physician Assistant Program Raises Profile on Campus, Across the State

The Physician Assistant program is raising its visibility through interprofessional training opportunities in the new Center for Healthcare Improvement and Patient Simulation on the Memphis campus. (Photo by Allen Gillespie/UTHSC)

Moving from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s College of Health Professions into the College of Medicine was a critical turning point for the Physician Assistant (PA) program. Not only did it help the program increase its visibility to physicians on campus, it did the same with partner hospitals and clinics across the state.

“As a physician who has been here since 1987, moving the PA program into the College of Medicine has really brought the program into light to the MD faculty,” said Stephanie Storgion, MD, FAAP, FCCM, chair and professor of the UTHSC PA Program. She said her first exposure to the PA profession was not until she was in her fellowship.

“There’s a lot of excitement for our students from those MD faculty,” Dr. Storgion said. “We have faculty reaching out to us saying ‘Hey, do you have any PAs? When are they going to come out? Can they rotate with us? I really need to hire some of them.’ That’s exciting.”

Relatively new to the field of medicine, the physician assistant profession was established in 1967 and celebrated its 50-year anniversary in 2017.

“The profession is fairly young,” said Kristopher Maday, MS, PA-C, program director and associate professor. “Some people still don’t understand what a PA does. And when students are in undergrad and high school, when they think of medicine, they think doctor or nurse. There’s an entire gray zone that gives us an opportunity to recruit and get out to communities that need health care providers and find those individuals and ask them if they’ve thought about being a PA. They can then go back into those communities after they graduate.”

With more than 400 million patient interactions per year, PAs can diagnose illnesses, prescribe medications, and often serve as the patient’s principal health care provider, with a majority of PAs practicing in outpatient offices or clinics.

The PA program is also fairly new to the UTHSC campus, starting as a new program in 2014. Historically, PA programs across the country vary significantly. “When schools start a PA program, there’s not really a model you can follow and emulate,” said Kara Caruthers, MSPAS, PA-C, assistant program director, associate professor, and director of community engagement, diversity, and recruitment. “In PA education when you see one program, you see one program. Right now there are 256 PA programs, and there are 256 ways that is implemented. It depends on the community you are in, it depends on the support, and it depends on if it’s on an academic medical campus versus if you are a stand-alone program.”

Dr. Storgion became chair in 2016, during the program’s transition into the College of Medicine. Over the past two years, she says the program has seen the stability it needed to position it for growth, including the recruitment of new faculty, Maday in 2017 and Caruthers in 2018. Both are involved nationally with the Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA) and have bolstered the UTHSC program’s curriculum, online presence, and community engagement.

“One of the main endeavors now is really revolving around visibility,” Maday said. “We want to make sure everyone on campus, not just here in Memphis, but across the region in Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga, all know we have a PA program here and we are trying to increase the PA presence in the state.”

Both Maday and Caruthers agree that being a part of the UT System, gives the program an opportunity to be visible to the undergraduate community throughout the state. Since the program is the only public PA program of the eight PA programs in Tennessee, exposure to the undergraduate communities in the UT System plays into increasing awareness and recruitment for the two-year program’s annual cohort of 30 students.

The program is increasing visibility among other colleges and departments on campus by building the curriculum around collaboration. Interprofessional education in the new $39.7 million Center for Healthcare Improvement and Patient Simulation has PA students interacting with pharmacy and medical students. Interaction with medical students is important because those same PA students may be hired by medical students with whom they interacted during training, once both are in practice, Maday said.

Engagement in the community is vital for raising the visibility of the PAs and increasing the general public’s knowledge of who PAs are, according to Caruthers. Once a month for three hours, students volunteer at the newly opened Wellness & Stress Clinic of Memphis. Located in South Memphis, the clinic provides free services, including medical care, job placement, and food assistance to the Oakhaven community. She said this has helped the students understand the social determinants of health and the hardships that may be faced by patients in the communities where they practice. “Seeing it from a medical, clinical perspective is one thing, but what good is it to give someone a prescription for medicine if they can’t afford it because they don’t have a job, which means they may not even have insurance or even transportation,” Caruthers said.

“When we have an opportunity where we can do those endeavors together as a group, that then goes out into the community and it spreads our reputation and what we are trying to do in other realms of medicine,” Maday said.

As a collective effort, the program feels it is succeeding. Its first-time board pass rate for the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) is at a three-year average of 96 percent and the program has a graduation rate of more than 93 percent. Among graduates surveyed after six months of graduation, more than 90 percent were employed full time.

“We have really planted ourselves in the PA world,” Dr. Storgion said.


Note: This story is from the most recent issue of Medicine magazine.