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USF physician assistant program gains accreditation

The new physician assistant program in USF's Morsani College of Medicine will provide students a master’s degree after 24 months of education. ORACLE FILE PHOTO/ADAM MATHIEU

After years of work and preparation, the Morsani College of Medicine’s new physician assistant (PA) program has finally received accreditation.

The new graduate program will provide students a master’s degree after 24 months of education.

The PA program will now be able to admit its first class of 30 students who will start in May of 2017, much to the joy of those who worked on it and the students hoping to join it. For Larry Collins, MPAS, PA-C, ATC, DFAAPA, assistant professor for the department of orthopedics and sports medicine and for the new PA program, it is the realization of a long held desire to see a PA school at USF.

Collins graduated from USF in 1988 and then left to attend PA school at another university. His path eventually led him back to USF for employment. He has taught many students but remembers always having to send them to other places for PA school. Now, he said, the situation for students has changed.

“There’s already a large body of students in the undergraduate sector here at USF that are interested in going into the PA profession,” he said. “… Every year I end up writing 15, 20, 30, 40 letters of reference for these students going into PA programs and they’re going everywhere, to other programs in Florida but also to programs outside of Florida because that’s where they can get into and so now having another place that they can go and a place that’s here at home, it’ll make it very nice for some of those individuals who can stay here.”

Collins was part of the faculty conversation to push for a program, a discussion which eventually got the ball rolling on its creation five or six years ago, he said.

Getting the accreditation was one step in the process. What USF’s PA program received was provisional accreditation, with the next level of accreditation coming years from now.

Another USF graduate who is excited to see USF’s PA program get its accreditation is Mia Stokes of the class of 2013. She graduated with a degree in public health and then left Tampa to return home, although she would’ve preferred to stay for a PA program at USF.

“I always said it would be really nice if USF would create a PA program because I love Tampa,” she said. “I moved back home and then I moved right back.”

Stokes is now looking to join the PA program at USF.

“This could be my opportunity to stay somewhere where I enjoy being,” she said.

Current USF undergraduate students are also looking forward to the program. Geraldine Farje, a senior majoring in psychology, also wants to be a part of the program. She said she is drawn to the PA profession because of a desire to aid people and teach them how to take care of themselves.

“I fell in love with the profession,” she said. “I would like to make a difference in people.”

According to Gretchen Koehler, assistant vice president for academic program administration and institutional effectiveness at USF Health, the PA program was built from the ground up. Koehler handled more of the administrative side of getting a new program up and running and going after accreditation.

The school will be an important addition to the Morsani College of Medicine, USF and the surrounding community, she said.

“There is such a need for all kinds of levels of health care providers and with the national health care landscape … with the shortage of physicians, what has typically been done to address that has been to increase the number of physicians or MD students, but that doesn’t take care of all the needs that we have and I suspect that our health care system will be changing and evolving in ways we’re not even 100 percent sure of but we are confident that reliance on other health care providers such as Physician Assistants will be a critical component of it,” Koehler said. “… I think it’s good for the students. I think it’s good for our community and I think it’s good on a national level in terms of adding additional health care providers into the mix.”

The interest on campus for a PA program is high, Collins said, and so is the need for PAs in an evolving medical profession. Todd Wills, the founding director of the PA program, said the PA field is seeing much growth. He said the estimated increase in demand for PAs each year is 15 to 20 percent.

“Physician Assistants are playing an increasing role in the delivery of health care, whether it be in primary care or specialty settings,” he said.

Wills worked on the process to get the new accreditation. First, he said, the university had to declare its intention to start the program, upon which a body came in to conduct a review to make sure it is feasible for the university to start the program. Then the application for accreditation starts. Wills said the PA program submitted its application in April of last year. In late June and early July two people did an in-person review to write a report. Then the accreditation body met to vote and ended up giving its approval.

The program will be part of the move the Morsani College of Medicine will be making to downtown as part of Lightning owner Jeff Vinik’s renovations. This comes as the program is just getting on its feet, but there are other challenges to starting a program and getting an accreditation, according to Koehler.

Some of these problems come with adding new information to the university computer systems, setting up physical space for the school and meeting all of the criteria for approval and accreditation. Promotion of the new school was limited to when the program was given accreditation, which was also a setback.

“The timing I think is a little bit challenging but that would really just be an issue I think for this particular year,” she said.

Wills said the next steps for the program will be reviewing applicants, finalizing classes and curriculum and training faculty.

He said he feels the program will be a great addition to the STEM programs USF already has and considers it a logical extension of the goals of USF Health.

“So, all of the hard work we’re doing on the undergraduate side of things, with our high quality majors in basic sciences, having this on site at USF is another place where undergraduate students can pursue higher degrees … in what is right now a very high paying field,” he said.

Applications for the program are already open through the portal CASPA.