August 02, 2006

Physician assistant master's degree program set

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Southern Illinois University Carbondale's College of Applied Sciences and Arts will begin offering a master's degree in Physician Assistant Studies in May 2007.

The current bachelor's degree program offered through the College's School of Allied Health will become a master of science degree, Dean Paul D. Sarvela said. The program will also offer a 12-month Web-based master's degree completion program for practicing physician assistants who already hold bachelor's degrees from accredited physician assistant programs.

"The profession is moving to a master's degree. We are very pleased about it," Sarvela said. "It is recognition that these types of professions are becoming much more sophisticated and require higher levels of training, education and experiences. A master's degree is the appropriate degree to give our physician assistants."

In its application to the Illinois Board of Higher Education, the college stated that based on current education trends and market demands, the Association of Physician Assistant Programs (APAP) Degree Task Force recommends that all physician assistant degree programs transition to conferring master's degrees within two years. At least 80 of the 138 physician assistant programs in the United States now offer graduate degrees.

The 26-month master's program will accommodate 24 graduates each of the first two years with plans to expand to 30 graduates per year after that.

The University created the current program in 1997 to help meet the health care needs of residents in central and Southern Illinois. To date, the program trained 220 physician assistants, and surveys indicate 75 percent of graduates are practicing medicine in rural areas.

SIUC's program is one of the few in the nation to offer a problem-based learning curriculum, which focuses on utilizing specific patient case studies as opposed to an emphasis on lectures and textbooks. In six out of eight years, all of the program graduates passed the NCCPA (National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants) national certification program on their first attempt – far exceeding the national passing rate.

SIUC's program is the only physician assistant program at an Illinois public university – the remaining programs in the state are in the Chicago area.

Assistant professor and program director Laurie R. Dunn said some of the new classes augment what is already a high-quality program. Those will include research methodology, health care systems, ethics and a master's project that students work on starting in their second semester.

"The level of our program already is at the master's degree level as far as difficulty so I think it makes sense that we award a master's degree," she said, adding the program's mission remains in "serving the underserved."

"This degree will be more reflective of the actual work they do," she said.

The program uses educational hub sites for students to complete their clinical training in Decatur, Olney, Mattoon, Springfield, Quincy, Carbondale and the Illinois Delta (areas south of Carbondale). Students recruited from those areas return to complete their second- and third-year clinical training and serve those regions, Dunn said. The program is looking to other locations in the state to expand health-care availability, she said.

Moving into a master's program means additional faculty to enhance the college and the School of Allied Health, Sarvela said. Those needs include biostatistics and epidemiology, and Dunn said the program would look to add a faculty member whose expertise is in pharmacology.

"It's going to increase the quality and level of training that our students are going to experience, he said.

"The addition of a biostatistician and epidemiologist will enhance not only that program but also the School of Allied Health and significantly increase our research capabilities as we add additional talent to our faculty ranks," Sarvela said.

Offering progressive graduate education while providing traditional and continuing education opportunities for professionals is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.