November 02, 2004

Graduates earn national certification Physician assistant program setting the standard

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Chalk up another perfect tally for the physician assistant program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

For the fourth time in six years, all of the program's August graduates passed the NCCPA (National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants) national certification program. The 100 percent pass rate by the 24 graduates far exceeds the national passing rate of 83 percent. SIUC graduates annually score between 94 percent and 99 percent on the test.

Dean Paul D. Sarvela of the College of Applied Sciences and Arts, said the results speak to the quality of instruction as well as caliber of students in our program.

These most recent test statistics build on the work and results of many previous years of testing, and more importantly, quality instruction, he said. To November 2, 2004, we have had 176 PA program grads, and 174 have passed on their first try. The other two passed on their second try. These are remarkable test statistics and provide us with several years of information documenting excellence in the classroom and clinics.

Program director Laurie R. Dunn echoed Sarvela's sentiments.

We are always very excited and very pleased our students do well, she said. I think it shows the dedication of our faculty, staff and students to achieve and be the best they can be.

The physician assistant program is in its eighth year. To graduate, students complete seven semesters in 26 months. There are currently two classes with 24 students each.

To practice as a physician assistant in the United States, students must graduate from a nationally accredited program and then pass the NCCPA exam. The NCCPA is the only certification body for physician assistants, and has representation on its board from various physician-constituent groups, including family practitioners and surgeons.

Competition to enter the program is keen, said Sarvela, as usually three or four applicants compete for each open seat when selecting a new class.

The results also point to the efficacy of the ëproblem-based learning' curriculum which was pioneered at the SIUC Medical School, and is now used in our PA curriculum, Sarvela said. When our PA students finish their educational program, they are highly skilled, pass the national exam and are ready to work in a physician's office.

The program is one of the few nationally that offers a problem-based learning curriculum, which focuses on utilizing specific patient case studies as opposed to an emphasis on lectures and textbooks.

In the program, students are divided into groups of six for one faculty member and work on actual patient cases. Students work the cases by interviewing and examining the patients, and by performing tests and diagnostic analyses on them. In some instances, patients are presented on paper, as computer cases, or in simulated cases using actors.

Students learn primarily based on the cases. They also do research, and then return to their groups and teach each other about the learning issues they identified. This integrated method of learning has students analyzing scenarios and applying their knowledge.

The program in 2003 received accreditation with no citations for another seven years from ARC-PA (Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant), the national accrediting agency that defines standards for physician assistant education and evaluates physician assistant educational programs in the United States.

About 75 percent of graduating students return to rural and underserved areas in Illinois. Sarvela sees that trend continuing because students become comfortable working in their clinical settings and enjoy their work. They also learn through their clinical rotations of the tremendous need for their skills in rural and other underserved areas, said Sarvela.

We are committed to meeting the health care needs of central and Southern Illinois. Our PA grads play an important role in providing health care in the underserved areas, and, we continue to emphasize the need for providers in the central and southern part of the state, Sarvela said.

The program is the perfect example of the type of program that Southern@150 seeks to build, strengthen and celebrate, said Sarvela. The program will move to a master's level format over the next few years, and we look forward to further support and strengthening of this already outstanding program, he said.

Supporting teaching excellence and enhancing nationally recognized programs whose graduates are in high demand are among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.

For more information on the program, contact program director Laurie R. Dunn at 618/453-8850.