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Intense USF Health Physician Assistant Program Gets Underway

It’s no secret that the U.S. population is aging. And with that comes the need for more medical professionals.

But it’s not just doctors and nurses -- the U.S. Department of Labor projects the number of physician assistant jobs to grow 30 percent by 2024.

So the University of South Florida is now offering a PA masters’ degree to help meet that demand. 

The inaugural class recently underwent orientation, met their faculty and toured the facilities. That was only the beginning of what one school official calls a “remarkably intense program.”

"It is probably more intense in its density of material than even an MD program," according to Dr. Todd Wills, the PA program director. "It lasts 24 months, and really that is 24 straight months with some holiday breaks, but otherwise the students are engaged in that education from May of this year all the way up to when they graduate in May of 2019."

Before we go any further – let’s define what a physician assistant does. To start with, PAs perform physical exams, diagnose and treat illnesses, and order and interpret lab results – all in cooperation with doctors across the spectrum of medicine.

"They may practice in primary care, they may practice in women’s health, and they may practice in surgical specialties," Wills said. "So many of the things that you see your physician do, physician assistants are also trained and able to do the same in collaboration with a supervisor."

In addition, in Florida, the law was recently changed to allow PAs to prescribe controlled substances.

While demand for PAs is high, the competition to get one of the 30 slots in USF’s program was just as intense, with more than 1,500 students applying.

"PA slots are incredibly competitive, the quality of the applicant pool is top-notch and we think it’s a treasure to have the opportunity to train these great students," Wills said.

Among those getting the nod was Jason Abraham. The Pat Tillman Foundation Scholarship finalist spent 17 years in the Florida Army National Guard, including two combat deployments.

Credit Freddie Coleman / USF Health Communications
USF Health Communications
Physician Assistant student Jason Abraham received his undergraduate degree from USF. He also spent 17 years in the Florida Army National Guard, including two combat deployments.

"My ability as a leader, taking soldiers overseas and now taking patients will be able to help guide them and get them to where they need to be," Abraham said.

But at 34, Abraham says age is keeping him from wanting to become a doctor.

"(Becoming a) PA gives me the opportunity to go through a two-year course, get through a medical program and be able to do the same things that a medical doctor does but just not at the same level as them, they have a little more education, they have little more responsibility, but at the end of the day, we do the same things," Abraham said.

Jensen Jozil previously worked as a medical assistant – a less hands-on job than what he will do as a PA – so he’s welcoming the challenges to come.

"I want to help patients make health care decisions on what to help them, form a plan on how to proceed with their health care and then just be more involved in their care," he said. 

And Melisssa Karaban is looking to making history as a member of the first class of USF PA’s, citing: "Amazing faculty, amazing facilities, hospitals that we’re going to work with."

All three students, along with about half of their classmates, received their undergraduate degrees at USF. Many of them are happy to be studying at a place they’re already familiar with.

Credit Freddie Coleman / USF Health Communications
USF Health Communications
USF PA student Melissa Karaban (right) talks to WUSF University Beat reporter Mark Schreiner (center).

"It’s exciting, I love being a Bull, I already live in a house over here where I have my family and a dog and a cat, fiancée, friends," Karaban said, adding, "It’s nice to stay local."

Abraham added: "Being here at USF is home, I grew up in Tampa, I love the campus, I love the facilities.

"We’re piggybacking off of a medical program that has been here since the (1970s), they’re an established program, they’re a great program and this PA program here is going to be just as excellent."

The program will be held at the Tampa campus and the downtown simulation training facility at CAMLS. But more important than where they’ll study is who they’ll be studying alongside of, as the USF Health curriculum is interdisciplinary.

"So we have doctors training with nurses, training with pharmacists, training with physical therapists," Wills said. "The addition of the Physician Assistant program adds another component to that interdisciplinary education and make it more robust, not only for our PA students, but for all the other students who are training here as well."

Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News
WUSF 89.7 News
USF Health PA Program Director, Dr. Todd Wills, addresses the first class of 30 students at their orientation at the USF College of Nursing.

Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.
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