Physician Assistant Major Earns Provisional Accreditation

Published 10.17.1996

Nursing & Health Sciences
Physician Assistant

The Physician Assistant major at Pennsylvania College of Technology has earned provisional accreditation, giving it the distinction of being the only approved physician assistant program at a state-related public college or university in Pennsylvania.

Provisional accreditation, awarded by The Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs, is an accreditation status granted to emerging programs by the commission upon recommendation of the Accreditation Review Committee on Education for the Physician Assistant.

Provisional accreditation is awarded to programs that have demonstrated substantial compliance with the recognized national standards for physician assistant education. This accreditation status permits an institution to officially begin the program and enroll professional-phase students.

A follow-up review is expected in one to two years, at which time full accreditation should be granted. In the meantime, the current class and next class of students are protected by the provisional status.

Russell M. Trapp Jr., Penn College's director of physician assistant, notes that only students who graduate from an accredited program can take the national certification exam that allows them to practice as a certified physician assistant professional. Thus, program accreditation protects the students, who are the customers of education, and, in the long run, accreditation protects the patients, who are the customers of health care.

There are currently 19 students in the professional phase of Penn College's physician assistant major, a bachelor's degree program. Those students, due to prior education and experience, were placed into the junior year of the program. Eleven of those students already hold bachelor's degrees, with one possessing a master's degree and three holding associate degrees. The students also have met the requirement of having at least 800 hours of health-care exposure prior to their junior year.

More than 100 students are enrolled in pre-professional physician assistant courses on campus. As part of its provisional accreditation, however, Penn College agreed not to enroll more than 25 students into the professional phase of the major.

"This gives us small class sizes, a reasonable student-to-faculty ratio, and the best experience for the students," Trapp says. "Clearly, with more applicants than seats available, we are charged with choosing the best candidates."

Such situations are typical with approved physician assistant programs, as the career field is a hot one. The Health Careers Occupational Analysis reports job openings in the physician assistant field will increase 20 percent by the end of the decade. The mean total income for physician assistants in 1995 was $61,750. For those in practice less than one year, the mean total income was $50,489.

Penn College's physician assistant students will gain their college education in the new Physician Assistant and Technology Center, formerly the Technical Trades Building 1. In addition to a clinical assessment lab and cadaver anatomy lab, the newly renovated facilities include a multimedia classroom, student lockers and showers, conference room, and faculty offices. Multimedia technologies have enhanced the instructional areas, and, among the dynamic features, students are given the opportunity to interact with "virtual patients" via CD-ROM and video technologies. These patients are so "virtual," that students can even listen to their patients' hearts beating.

"Interacting with virtual patients here on campus will better prepare the students for what they will encounter out in the field," Trapp says. "Students will be given patient cases to go through. They can ask questions, make physical evaluations, order lab tests and come up with clinical diagnoses. It makes learning fun for the students and the faculty, and it stimulates the whole process. Previously, we'd only be able to read about cases in a textbook. Now we can recreate situations right in the classroom."

In addition to Trapp, who was previously a faculty member and senior coordinator of clinical education with Duquesne University's Department of Physician Assistant, Penn College physician assistant students will be taught by Esther K. Klinger, clinical director, and faculty members Jane M. Trapp, Christine M. Crum and Susan Swank-Caschera, all certified physician assistants with an average of 10 years of clinical experience. Their qualifications were among the strengths noted by the accreditation site visit team which stated the directors and faculty were "exceptionally well-qualified ... The depth of their clinical experience and education is unusual ... The institution is fortunate to have recruited them."

As well as the faculty and technology strengths, Penn College was complimented for its "outstanding institutional commitment" and its support team of adjunct faculty and advisory committee members. Russell Trapp agrees, "It is exciting to be at an institution that is so committed to providing this education and to be in a community where physician assistants themselves are so supportive of what the institution is doing. That support has allowed us to design an incredible environment for students seeking to get into this profession." The director notes that Penn College's facility is "equivalent to if not better than" the program he graduated from at an academic medical center.

Similar to most physician assistant programs, the College's is aimed at educating primary-care providers. Physician assistants are prepared in the clinical knowledge and skills common to primary-care medicine; specialty opportunities also exist for program graduates.

Trapp says the profession is more than30 years old and has remained strong because of its ability to fill gaps in the health-care system.

"Because of their flexibility, physician assistants are well-positioned to fit into areas of need," he states. "Physician assistants are also cost-effective ... You get a significant amount of service for a reasonable cost." Adequate health care in rural areas is another situation being better addressed thanks to physician assistants, Trapp notes, adding that Penn College's physician assistant major is ideally located to help in meeting these needs. The nearest accredited physician assistant program is located in Wilkes-Barre, with others in the Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Altoona and Erie areas.