Heritage University launches physician assistant program

TOPPENISH- A new program launching at Heritage University is poised to impact health care for those living in rural areas of the Pacific Northwest.

The university recently received approval by its accrediting body to begin recruiting for a new Master of Arts in physician assistant (PA) studies. It will be the only such program offered in Central Washington.

“There is a real and immediate need for qualified health care providers in our country,” said Dr. Linda Dale, program director.

“We don’t have enough primary care providers to meet the need as it exists today. That gap is only going to grow as health care reform is enacted.”

According to a July 2013 Washington State Department of Health report, 38 of 39 counties in the state are federally designated health professional shortage areas for primary care providers. High numbers of migrant populations, low-income populations or those that are situated in rural areas making access to health care difficult, lead to this distinction. The story is similar in states surrounding Washington from which Heritage expects to recruit students—Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Wyoming.

Heritage’s PA program addresses this need head on. Dale explains that extra emphasis is being placed on recruiting students from these high needs areas.

“One of the best ways to attract someone to a rural location is to train the people who already live there and call it home,” she said.

Heritage will begin accepting applications to the PA program this October. Admission into the program will be highly competitive with only 32 slots open for this initial cohort. Applicants will not only have to have a Bachelor’s degree, but medical experience as well. A minimum of 1,000 hours of direct, hands-on patient health care experience is required. Over time, the number of applicants accepted into the program will rise to 48 in each cohort.

“We take the selection and education of future PAs very seriously. Although PAs always work with a supervising physician, they do practice autonomously and make medical decisions that impact their patient’s lives,” said Dale.

“We want to know that the PA student that graduates from Heritage University will have the knowledge and skills to care for a high percentage of patients, yet also be aware of their own limitations. They need to be able to recognize when to refer the patient to their supervising physician or specialist; when the problem is beyond their scope of practice or fund of knowledge. That is team medicine at its best.”

For those admitted into the program, the next two years will be filled with the kind of rigor one would expect from medical school. While the program is fully Heritage’s, the osteopathic medical school at Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences (PNWU) is opening their library to the program’s students, as well as some of their facilities, including medical labs and exam rooms. PA students will spend the first year in classrooms at Heritage and occasionally combine with the PNWU medical students for lectures that are important to both professions.

PA and osteopathic medicine students working side by side is a good thing, says Dale.

“Quality patient care takes a team approach. Doctors, nurses, PAs, everyone plays a role,” she said. “Working together builds trust, in each other and in their training.”

In their second year of training, students move into clinical studies. They are placed in primary care practices in rural and under-served areas, with every effort made to place them near their hometowns. Students will spend two to three days working in family practice with the remainder of the week working in specialization rotations, such as emergency medicine, surgery or pediatrics.

“It is important that students learn about patient care at all stages of a person’s life,” said Dale. “It is possible that a student could be there at the time a pregnancy is diagnosed, through delivery and then care for the infant.”

At the completion of the program, graduates will be eligible to sit for the national board exam, which will license them to practice under the supervision of a licensed physician.

Classes for the first cohort of physician assistant students are scheduled to begin next year during the month of May.

Heritage University will begin accepting applications this coming October. The program is approved to begin recruiting by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities and is in the process of being reviewed for preliminary accreditation by the national accrediting body for the PA profession, the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant. Full accreditation is expected following the completion of the first cohort.


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