Opportunity Abounds

Valparaiso University continues to enhance the quality of its extensive academic program array in order to prepare graduates for the dynamic job market. The College of Nursing and Health Professions has been on a trajectory of growth and innovation, becoming the first university in Indiana to offer a doctor of nursing practice and expanding program offerings, including health care leadership, public health, health administration, and most recently, physician assistant studies.

In recognition of the growing need for health care as well as an educational void in Northwest Indiana, Valpo launched its physician assistant (PA) program, enrolling its first class of students in fall 2015.

“It requires a genuinely humane person with great values and character to want to take care of people. These are people who really need to put others first and get out there and serve,” says Antoinette Polito, MHS, PA-C, director of didactic education for the physician assistant program and associate professor of physician assistant studies. “Both the PA program and the University are committed to forming young adults who will lead and serve with integrity. This intersection is why Valpo has developed such outstanding nurses, and I believe it’s not dissimilar to developing physician assistants.”

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Physician assistant programs developed in the 1960s as a means for military combat medics returning from Vietnam to utilize their skills in civilian society. Physician assistants are trained generally and can be found in nearly any medical setting or specialty. They are integral members of health care teams who work interdependently with a supervising physician, taking medical histories, conducting physical examinations, diagnosing and treating illness, prescribing medications, assisting in surgery, performing procedures, making hospital rounds, and much more.

Physician assistant jobs are in demand. U.S. News & World Report ranked physician assistants third in its list of best jobs of 2017, and they were seventh on Glassdoor’s list of 25 highest-paying jobs in America.

“Physician assistant programs are getting a lot of attention as a great future career,” says Assistant Dean Zaweski. “You get to practice medicine without the headaches often associated with the business side of medicine, as those are reserved for the physicians. And, with the broad-based training PAs obtain, you are equipped with the flexibility to conform to any specialty from emergency medicine to orthopedic surgery.”

As the health care model becomes increasingly team-centric, Valpo’s College of Nursing and Health Professions is particularly conducive to training in team-based care. PA students have the opportunity to work with nursing, health care leadership, and public health students in the classroom and beyond through simulations. And, as the college continues to grow, further integration will result. Developing interprofessional education opportunities outside the CONHP is also on the horizon, including collaboration with programs such as social work, psychology, and bioengineering.

Health care is a demanding and important career, and it’s crucial that the schooling mimics that so students can prepare for the intensity that lies in their future.

Valpo’s accelerated physician assistant program consists of a three-year pre-professional phase (undergraduate) followed by a two-year professional program (graduate) divided into a 12-month didactic phase and a 12-month clinical education phase. The bachelor’s degree in health science, the beginning three-year phase of the program, has increased in size with each of its three student cohorts and graduated its first class in May 2018. The master of science in physician assistant studies, the two-year culminating phase of the program, enrolled its first class in August 2018.

“The PA program is unique in the way it is structured, with students accepted into the health science program gaining direct admission into the PA master’s program provided they meet the necessary progression standards,” says Sarah Ludwigsen ’18, third-year PA student. This alters the entire culture of the program. Instead of students competing for seats in the master’s portion, students work together to succeed. This has been one of my favorite parts of the program.”

Valparaiso University is the first institution in Northwest Indiana to offer a physician assistant program, providing broad-based training in seven core areas — family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics, women’s health, behavioral health, general surgery, and emergency medicine.

“What drew me to Valpo is part of the University ethos, ‘we seek truth,’ which is at the core of what we seek to do in medicine,” says Assistant Dean Zaweski. “We are fortunate to have begun this program exactly how we envisioned it — a modular, integrated curriculum delivered in a newly designed, adult-centered active learning environment. This is an exciting time.”

The PA classroom is a high-tech, flexible learning environment, with monitors, white boards, and mobile tables, enabling and encouraging different types of work. This classroom may sound atypical, but Valpo’s PA program is not a typical program. During the first-year didactic stage, students will be in the classroom each weekday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., learning through a multitude of integrated techniques. From lectures and problem-based learning to hands-on, simulation experiences, the learning strategies and educational opportunities are virtually endless.

“Health care is a demanding and important career, and it’s crucial that the schooling mimics that so students can prepare for the intensity that lies in their future,” Professor Polito says.

The PA curriculum will be presented in modules based on specific organ systems, spanning one to three weeks, with an examination each week. For instance, when studying cardiology, Valpo’s innovative framework will introduce students to every aspect of cardiac care, including diagnostic tools used to study the heart, laboratory tests to evaluate cardiac health, drugs prescribed for heart conditions, and necessary treatment procedures.

“Valpo has a long history of taking young people and educating them in a myriad of ways, whether it’s spiritual, academic, or physical,” Professor Polito says. “The focus Valpo has on creating well-rounded graduates is a great way to form health care professionals. I look forward to getting into the classroom to guide these young adults not only in their professional development, but their personal development as well.”

While hands-on, clinical experience is woven throughout the first year of the master’s segment of the program, students will find themselves immersed in clinical experiences during the second-year clinical phase. Students’ experiential curriculum consists of five-week clinical experiences, the seven core rotations, and two elective rotations, allowing students to customize their training to best benefit their careers.

Prior to matriculating its first class into the master’s degree segment of the program, Valpo’s program underwent a provisional accreditation process from the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). This is a robust, multi-year process required for the program to be eligible for continuing accreditation. Valpo tendered its formal written request for entry into the provisional accreditation pathway in 2013. In July 2017, the University supplied the ARC-PA with its completed application, a more than 600-page document consisting of hundreds of details about the program — personnel, facilities, resources, policies, course curriculum, and self-assessment, to name a few.

At the March 2018 ARC-PA meeting, Valpo’s PA program was officially granted provisional accreditation, paving the way for enrollment of the first cohort of master’s students that fall.

After nearly five years of preparation, the program was primed and eager to begin its first year of master’s studies — as was the entering class of nearly 25 students.

“While the accelerated nature of the program has been challenging, it is beneficial in preparing students for careers in a fast-paced, evolving field,” Kayleigh Corn ’18, third-year PA student, says. “The PA program has been an incredible experience. I’ve made great friendships and connections with the people in my program, I’ve been pushed to excel in the classroom and to find field experience, and I feel prepared to move to the graduate portion of the program.”

Physician Assistants by the Numbers

The National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) reported that the PA profession grew 54.8% over seven years, reaching 123,089 certified PAs at the end of 2017.

The NCCPA revealed the average salary of certified physician assistants was more than $107K in 2017, an increase of 12.7% in five years. The highest-paid were those working in pathology and dermatology.

The American Academy of PAs reported the average age of a physician assistant is 30–34, with the majority of PAs under 40.

Nationally, the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows a strong job outlook for PAs, with a projected 37 percent increase in jobs from 2016 to 2026.

U.S. News & World Report ranked physician assistants third on their list of best jobs and second on their list of best health care jobs of 2018.