Wake Forest, Appalachian State team up to train more physician assistants

jstancill@newsobserver.comSeptember 5, 2013 

Wake Forest University is expanding a physician assistant program to meet the growing need in primary care, and it’s going about it in a novel way.

By next fall, about one-third of Wake Forest’s incoming P.A. students will be 90 miles away from Winston-Salem, on the campus of Appalachian State University in Boone.

The unusual partnership between a private and public university is expected to earn accreditation this week from the national agency that oversees physician assistant programs.

Wake Forest was looking to expand is P.A. program with hopes of encouraging more students to go into primary care in underserved rural areas. The university also wanted to foster more collaboration between its students and those in other health fields, including nursing, exercise science, nutrition, social work and others.

That’s where Appalachian State comes in. Three years ago, the university consolidated its health majors and added new ones into a College of Health Sciences, which has 16 programs. It’s now the second-largest college at ASU with 3,100 students in degree programs.

And so a match was made between the two universities, which happen to share school colors.

“We have a lot more commonality than black and gold,” said Fred Whitt, dean of Appalachian State’s College of Health Sciences.

Currently, about one-third of Wake Forest’s P.A. graduates go into primary care. The rest go into surgery and subspecialties. The university sends its students across the state and nation to train in clinical rotations with doctors. The lack of primary care providers in parts of Western North Carolina was obvious.

“We spent a lot of time through the Appalachian counties, and it’s unbelievable the unmet needs in that area,” said Reamer Bushardt, director of Wake Forest’s physician assistant program.

Bushardt said it only made sense to recruit and train students in that area, building partnerships with health systems for job training and employment opportunities.

“We believe it will be more effective than if we try to train more in Winston-Salem and send them up the mountain,” Bushardt said. “Let people grow and develop in the community they want to serve. I think it works.”

The two-year master’s program will be a Wake Forest degree taught by Wake Forest faculty based at Appalachian State. The Wake Forest students and faculty will live and work in Boone, alongside ASU professors and students in other health programs. The P.A. students will get experience working in teams.

“Whereas a doctor used to always work in isolation, with the new health care, the doctor will be kind of a like the conductor of the orchestra or the quarterback of a football team,” Whitt said. “They’ll be working with these teams of nurse practitioners or P.A.s or physical therapists.”

It’s a concept that’s gaining momentum as health care reform takes root in the United States. Universities in North Carolina are rushing to create new programs and pipelines for primary care doctors, nurses and other allied health professionals.

This year, six UNC campuses launched doctor of nursing practice degrees to offer more advanced training to nurse practitioners; this fall, Campbell University opened a School of Osteopathic Medicine focused on primary care. There are seven P.A. programs in North Carolina, and two more are planned at High Point and Gardner-Webb universities.

Whitt said more students are gravitating toward health careers that don’t require the extended, expensive path through medical school and residency.

“There are a lot of really, really bright students that are coming into our college as opposed to going to med school,” he said, “that are looking for a different quality of life but yet still (want to) make a real impact.”

Tuition for the Wake Forest program is $31,000 a year for students at either campus. The Boone-based students in the expanded program will start their education for a month in Winston-Salem so they can bond with their classmates and take intensive basic science. Then they will complete the year in Boone. The second year will be spent in a series of clinical rotations across the western part of the state.

ASU already has well-established relationships with hospitals, clinics and doctor offices in the region. The WFU students will tap into it.

“It was like, why in the world would we try to go plant something there when there’s a partner that understands the community and is already so integrated?” Bushardt said.

The partnership will benefit residents without the expense of state dollars at ASU, he added. In the new world of health care education, Bushardt said it made sense to leverage each school’s strengths in an effort to do more with less.

“Who knows what will happen with the Affordable Care Act?” he said. “But we’re trying to anticipate and be ready.”

Stancill: 919-491-8213

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