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CMU physician assistant program looks forward

Key opportunities include more med school collaboration

Contact: Heather Smith

The physician assistant program at Central Michigan University rests on three pillars, and leaders are eyeing a fourth: greater collaboration with CMU’s new College of Medicine.

Actually, “rests” is the wrong word, since nothing about the P.A. program is standing still. Since members of the first class received their degrees in 1998, the program’s 746 graduates have built a reputation for making a difference across Michigan and nationwide.

The job placement rate is 95 percent upon graduation.

“Everywhere we go, clinicians are raving about the quality of our students,” said Thomas Masterson, dean of The Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow College of Health Professions.

The program already stands out for a commitment to serving the underserved, a focus on active research and a track record of achievement.

According to Masterson, some 80 percent of P.A. degree holders work with underserved populations in Michigan: rural and urban residents, prison inmates and the military.

“For me, that kind of mission goes back to the root of our profession,” said Scott Massey, recently named the program’s director.

With each class over the past five years averaging about 35 students, all but three of them passed the P.A. certification exam on the first try.  Massey called that incredible.

As for research, Massey cited faculty work in student stress and diabetes as examples.

“I think our program has all the right pieces in place,” he said.

Masterson agreed.

“These students can go anywhere,” he said, “and they choose to come to CMU because they know they’re going to be better educated clinically in our program.”

‘A team approach to medicine’

Both leaders now point to a huge asset in another wing of their building: the CMU College of Medicine. They’re eyeing more collaboration between the schools — a closer working relationship with more shared resources and learning experiences for students.

Talks are ongoing, and in what Masterson calls “the first cross-pollination of faculty,” Dr. Ahmad Hakemi, the P.A. program’s medical director, will teach a class this fall in the med school.

Strong backers of inter-professional education, Masterson and Massey would like to see P.A. and med students serve their off-campus rotations together and at the same places, as often as possible.

This double-perspective approach to health care can only enhance the patient experience, Masterson said.

“They’re supposed to learn what a doctor would do, what a nurse would do, what a speech language pathologist would do,” he said. “It’s a team approach to medicine.”

Pursuing the best outcomes

Massey said he sees no reason why CMU’s P.A. program can’t be No. 1 in the state or in the top 25 nationally.

To do that requires a hard look at the entire program, he said.

“Students actually pass their certification exam at a very high rate here,” he said, “but I want to go beyond that.

“How are they learning? How can the learning process be enhanced to the point where they’re not only doing well, they’re excelling?”

Massey sees himself leading the way utilizing his core strengths in analysis, statistics, research and making assessments.

Then there are the intangibles. Along with a quality education, Masterson said there’s a strong spirit of camaraderie in the P.A. program, where 35 strangers begin learning together and “basically turn into brothers and sisters.”

There’s also what the dean calls “the CMU experience.”

“The CMU faculty and staff really go out of their way to help these students be successful,” Masterson said. “You can’t replace that. There’s no monetary value for that.” 

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