October 31, 2011

PA program ranks among nation’s best

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Recent graduates of Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s acclaimed physician assistant program are among the best in the nation.

The 29 graduates who took the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants (NCCPA) national certification exam collectively earned the highest national percentile class scores in program history, enabling SIU Carbondale to rank among the top three percent of physician assistant programs in the nation.

In addition, a recent statistical compilation of graduates dating back to the first graduating class in 1999 shows that 57 percent of the physician assistants (PAs) work in rural communities, fulfilling one of the program’s goals.

“Our mission here as a program is to train physician assistants to practice primary care medicine, especially in rural and underserved areas.  We are increasing access to care in rural communities,” said Donald O. Diemer, program director.

Diemer is also very pleased with the national exam results, which produced the program’s highest mean board score in program history.  The class’s mean board score was 655; 800 is a perfect score. 

Three of the 29 students attained the top possible score and two other students scored in the 790s, Diemer said.  Testing began in September. Some of the approximate 150 physician assistant programs in the nation have yet to complete testing, but Diemer anticipates little change in SIU Carbondale’s rank.

“The whole time the results were coming in I could not believe it,” Diemer said.  “I’m extremely pleased with the results.”

The PA program started in 1997.  The School of Allied Health in the College of Applied Sciences and Arts offers the program in cooperation with the SIU School of Medicine.

Terry A. Owens, interim dean of the College of Applied Sciences and Arts, said he is “extremely pleased and excited” with the passing rate and scores compiled by the 2011 PA graduates.

“The rate is direct reflection on the quality of the students admitted into the program and the outstanding instruction provided by the PA faculty,” Owens said.

Diemer attributes the improvement to the dedication of the faculty who “developed an outstanding curriculum,” great support staff, the program’s admission process that attracts “really good students,” and a few recent changes.  Students are now taking practice board exams, and receiving one week off during the last two months of the program to participate in board review courses, he said.

Another important consideration is the program’s internationally recognized problem-based learning (PBL) format, Diemer said.  The PBL model is much more interactive than a traditional physician assistant education, where students will spend a year in classroom lectures before beginning clinical work.  In the PBL format, small groups of five to eight students and a faculty member, who works as facilitator, start off with a medical issue from a patient and learn from there.  Students work through a patient’s history, physical assessment and medical plan.

There are seven full-time and three part-time faculty members.              Interest in the program remains very competitive.  There are again more than 400 applications for the 30 student positions for the class of 2014, Diemer said.  PA students have bachelor’s degrees prior to consideration for admission to the program. 

According to patient count numbers supplied by the American Academy of Physician Assistants, 146 of 256 SIU Carbondale graduates who practice in rural or underserved areas account for approximately 730,000 patient visits annually, Diemer said.  A majority of graduates seek licenses in Illinois, he said.

“CASA has a long tradition of graduating health care providers who are committed to the Southern Illinois region,” Owens said.  “Many of our students come from this region and they have a keen sense of the health care needs of rural communities.  The fact that nearly 60 percent of the PA graduates choose to work in rural communities, many in Illinois, comes as no surprise.”

The program is “is a shining example of the University meeting its missions to serve the health care needs of Illinois,” said Charla J. Lautar, professor and director of the School of Allied Health.

A full 26 months (seven semesters) of on-campus study are required for the master of science in physician assistant studies degree. The first year of study, beginning in June, is on the Carbondale campus while the second year involves clinic rotations at a variety of Illinois sites. The final phase is an eight-week preceptorship at the site the student selects with faculty approval.

The program also offers a master’s degree that certified PAs with a bachelor’s degree may finish in 12 months.

More information on the physician assistant program is available at paprogram.siuc.edu/.