Mercyhurst will begin its first cohort of 20 Physician Assistant Masters students on June 1.
Physician Assistant Studies Program Director Catherine Gillespie, DHSc, said the program will be the first two-year graduate program for this field in the region. It is designed to cater to students who have field experience under their belts.
“We’re really the only graduate program in our region. You’d have to go to Buffalo, Pittsburgh or Cleveland to get a true graduate program,” said Gillespie. “Certainly students that are here at our university, they could be Public Health students, they could be Sports Medicine, Bio, and can come to us.”
The program is part of the School of Health Professions and Public Health, and is part of a network of programs which involve both the North East and Erie campuses.
The school is the first of its kind at the university, encompassing programs from both campuses at the associate, baccalaureate and graduate levels, focused on a single theme, according David Hyland, Ph.D, Associate Dean of the School of Health Professions and Public Health.
“Previously, it’s been done by degree, essentially. So associate degree stuff, that was separate. Baccalaureate degree stuff, that was separate. Graduate degree programs, those were separate. And now with the health school, we’re kind making somewhat of a continuum, from the associate programs, to the baccalaureate, to the Master’s level,” Hyland said.
The physician assistant field is growing. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has the field growing 38 percent between 2012 and 2022.
The program began development in 2010, but is only beginning in June because the program had to be completely developed and accredited before moving forward, according to Gillespie.
“The PA Program is really different from most of your traditional programs. We have to be officially accredited before we can move forward. And the accreditation process is pretty arduous. The average is estimated anywhere from 18 to 24 months to develop the program and then gain accreditation,” Gillespie said.
The program gained its accreditation on March 23. It will host cohorts of students on an annual basis and lasts 24 months. The first 12 months of the program will be primarily devoted to classroom education and the second 12 months will be clinical education, according to Gillespie.
“They’ll have nine clinical rotations. They’ll take rotations in family practice, women’s health, pediatrics, surgery, emergency medicine, mental health and two electives they can choose. And we have a fair amount of clinical affiliates within the region,” Gillespie said.
Rotation locations vary. Students will be able to take rotations all over the country, according to Gillespie.
“Because of where we sit in Erie, we’re kind of in that region of Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Cleveland. And that’s where we gain most of our sites. But if a student wanted to go to Alaska, I’ve got friends in Alaska. Students might often want to do a rotation in the community that they want to work in. So we’ll probably have students do rotations, concentrated in the regional area, but if a student has a connection, wants to have an experience somewhere, we can work on that too,” Gillespie said.
The five faculty members working in the program are active practitioners in the field, with a combined experience of 44 years in academia and PA education, and 111 years in healthcare, said Gillespie.
“I’m a PA I’m not just an old lady who teaches. I work every Wednesday in a family practice office with Dr. Paul Holly who’s our medical director. And I work weekends in the emergency room at Hamot. So I still actively practice my craft and all of my faculty members do as well,” Gillespie said.
The School of Health Professions and Public Health is also helping to encourage cooperation and collaboration between the North East and Erie campuses. The cooperation at this point is primarily among the faculty, according to Hyland.
“It wasn’t really part of our culture there for a while, and now with the health school, we’re trying to break some of those boundaries that have existed between Erie campus and North East campus. And it’s a little bit easier to do with the health programs, because we are doing very similar sorts of things,” Hyland said.