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May 4, 2020

New physician assistant program addresses rising need for health care workers

As the COVID-19 crisis strains an existing national health care worker shortage, Michigan State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine is launching a physician assistant master’s degree program. Set to begin next summer, individuals with an interest in the field can start applying now.

Physician assistants are uniquely suited to meet the rising demand for workers in the health care field overall.

“The whole profession came out of a need for rural health care in the 1960s. During World War II, medical training was successfully accelerated to three years to meet demands for more doctors,” said John McGinnity, professor in the College of Osteopathic Medicine and director of the new PA program. “Physicians realized you could accelerate medical school, train these health professionals, and get them out into the workforce earlier,” said McGinnity. 

PAs are trained to be medical generalists, which is often cited as one of the reasons the profession continues to grow at a steady pace. Just like physicians, PAs must recertify every 10 years, but they’re required to stay proficient in all areas of medicine. Because of this, PAs often switch specialties throughout their careers.

As PAs from all medical specialties are being called to work in the emergency room during the COVID-19 crisis, this flexibility and ability to dynamically meet a health care system's gaps have been highlighted as an incredibly valuable asset, McGinnity said.

The 27-month educational program will feature four semesters of classroom training and one year of clinical rotations.

Unlike the majority of PA programs, MSU PA students will complete 48 percent of their instructional coursework alongside medical students. The goal is to turn out PAs who are “Day 1” ready to practice medicine in teams with doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists and other health professionals. 

“I see our role as PAs as the ultimate patient advocate,” McGinnity said. “A PA is the person who is supposed to get the team working together. From our profession’s conception, we were all about a team-based approach to medicine.” 

By learning collaboratively, MSU PA students will be prepared with the necessary skills to work in a similar fashion upon graduation.

With this goal in mind, McGinnity and his colleagues made use of MSU’s Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology to create a forward-thinking curriculum. During the process, they reached out to major health care systems to find out where most PA graduates are strong, and where there’s usually room for improvement. The program’s primary care-focused curriculum was designed with this feedback in mind.

MSU has applied to the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, and a decision will be made on provisional accreditation status at the September 2020 ARC-PA meeting. Complete accreditation details can be found here.

Applications for May 2021 enrollment will be accepted until January 15, 2021. The program will be capped at 32 students for the inaugural class, and MSU PA Medicine will join the six existing programs in Michigan for a profession in high demand. McGinnity said that there are typically eight to 10 applications for every PA program seat.

His aim is to not only fill the seats with individuals who are interested in providing care across the state, but also with those who want to be part of transforming health care. 

“If health care is truly going to be transformative, it needs providers who are willing to step up and lead in that process,” McGinnity said.

But the number one quality he’s looking for in applicants to the rigorous program? Grit.

By: Sarina Gleason