7:15 pm
Wed August 28, 2013

Healthcare Reform Means Big Opportunities for Med Students

A new initiative between Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and Appalachian State University will help address a shortage of physician assistants in North Carolina.

Students in the physician assistant program with Wake Forest School of Medicine listen to speakers during an event held Wednesday in the Biotech Place atrium. A new partnership between Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and Appalachian State University will help recruit more physician assistants to serve rural areas in North Carolina.
Credit Keri Brown

Officials from both universities gathered at Wake Forest Biotech Place in downtown Winston-Salem Wednesday to announce the partnership.  

Wake Forest School of Medicine already offers a physician assistant program, but the collaboration with Appalachian State University will allow more research opportunities for both institutions.

Dr. John McConnell is the chief executive officer at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. He says the need for the profession is growing as the population ages. He says healthcare reform is another reason why partnerships like this are so important.

“The key disconnect in healthcare reform legislation is that it is designed to open access and to provide expanded coverage without thinking where the manpower is going to come from. Frankly, we are going to have to do that on our own, as we are doing with this important program,” says McConnell.

Those who get into the two-year physician assistant program will officially be students of Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

McConnell says the program is looking to accept around 24 to 32 students. The curriculum is designed around problems based learning, and experiential learning methods.

“I think it is really great because it focuses on relationships between patients and providers and making sure that everything with their healthcare is taken care of. It’s also a shorter program with no residency, but I love the fact that the program focuses on relationship building,” says Erica Hill, a first year student in the physician assistant program at Wake Forest.

Faculty from both universities will teach classes at Appalachian State’s campus in Boone. Students will also have to complete a year-long clinical rotation at a healthcare facility in the region or nationwide.  

Fred Whitt is the founding dean of the College of Health Sciences at Appalachian State University. He says over the past three years, healthcare related majors in the college of Health Sciences have nearly doubled, with more than 3,100 majors today. He says both universities share a common vision to meet the growing need for physician assistants’ in rural communities, especially in Western North Carolina.

“The cohort that we are trying to target on our campus is from the rural area. A lot of research shows that students who come from the rural area often will go back and work in that area. We also want to target veterans who are returning from active duty,” says Whitt.

Elizabeth Frost of Asheville is also a first year physician assistant student at Wake Forest University School of Medicine.  She says she plans to stay in her home state after graduation.

“I think it would be really satisfying to work in rural healthcare and to be able to ease into the healthcare field providing healthcare to people who need it and it is really exciting,” says Frost.

Employment of physician assistants is expected to increase 30 percent by the year 2020. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for a physician assistant is North Carolina is around $91,000.    

The new program between Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and Appalachian State University will begin in June 2014.