In a lab on the University of Dubuque campus, students unwrapped the plastic covering from four cadavers.
They were tasked with making incisions to the chest wall and abdomen, exposing the muscles. The goal of the exercise was to teach them more about medical physiology and anatomy, laying the foundation for the practices they will learn later.
The students are in the first class of UD’s new physician assistant program. The first class consists of 25 students — about 5 percent of the approximately 500 people who applied to the program, officials said.
The students started orientation at the end of July and began classes this month. The program serves as an extension of the college’s mission and trains professionals who play a role in improving access to medical care, according to school officials.
“This is really, some people would call this the first month of medical school — it’s equivalent of that,” said Mark Ward, vice president for academic affairs.
The program is housed in a new addition to University Science Center. The space includes a lab set up as a hospital ward with patient beds, an area built to mimic a doctor’s office with exam rooms, an anatomy lab and classrooms.
Students will spend the first 15 months of the 27-month program on campus, taking classes and gaining the skills they need. The 12 months after that are spent in four-week clinical rotations. Students who complete the program will earn a master’s degree in physician assistant studies and take a national certification exam.
The outpouring of interest from prospective students was expected and consistent with what other schools have seen, Ward said. It reflects interest in the program and the growing need for intermediate-level physician assistants, he said.
“There’s a real demand for graduates of this program,” Ward said.
William Karkow, academic director of the program, noted that a small class size is typical for such a program. UD’s provisional accreditation from the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant allows for a 25-student class this year and next year, and then 30 the following year. The university plans to eventually grow the class size, but that is a few years away, Karkow said.
Karkow said there are many small towns in eastern Iowa, southern Wisconsin and the tri-state area that have a shortage of medical practitioners. Many physician assistant programs in the U.S. are not in rural areas, so UD’s program allows the school to train students who want to seek a career in a more rural environment, he said.
“We are also attracting students, not all, but roughly speaking about half of our class is more or less in the local, regional area, and presumably those folks have a somewhat-higher likelihood of wanting to remain in the area,” he said.
Physician assistants are essentially regarded as extensions of physician care, able to handle the common problems a physician might deal with, he said.
“By taking the bulk of that load off the physician’s hands, they allow the physician to handle the more unusual, the more complex situations, and therefore you have more timely access to medical care,” he said.
Taylor Dawson, 24, of Des Moines, was drawn to the program because UD is a smaller school and she liked the Dubuque community. She considered going to medical school at one point, but she settled on physician assistant studies because the program is shorter yet still gives her the skills to use in many areas of the medical profession. She said she enjoyed her experience so far.
“The staff is helpful and friendly, and because we’re the first class, we’re all learning together, which makes it a unique opportunity,” she said.
Josh Dixon, 27, came to Dubuque from Spokane, Wash.
“Mostly I’m excited to start diving into what we’re actually going to practice in clinicals,” he said.
Rachael Haugen (center) and other students in the first class of the University of Dubuque’s new physician assistant program dissect cadavers. Roughly 500 people applied to be part of the program but only 25 students were accepted for the first class.
William Karkow, academic director of the physician assistant program (top center) talks with his students during lab at the University of Dubuque.
William Karkow, academic director of the physician assistant program writes vocabulary words on the whiteboard during lab at the University of Dubuque.
Article: BY ALLIE HINGA
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