Physician Assistants Week 2014: Celebrating 47 years of compassion, excellence

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Aaron D. Geyer
  • 99th Medical Operations Squadron
You've seen us in your family's doctor's office, in your local emergency room, and perhaps even in the operating room. When that smiling medical provider introduces themselves as a physician assistant, or PA, who and what exactly are you meeting? 

The PA is a nationally certified, state-licensed medical professional that traces their roots back to the battlefields of World War II  and the halls of one our country's most prestigious medical schools, Duke University School of Medicine. Reminiscent of today, the late 1950's found the nation faced with a shortage of adequately educated and qualified medical providers, especially in rural America.

In 1961, Dr. Charles Hudson, a trustee of the American Medical Association called for the expansion of medical services through the use of mid-level practitioners anchored by former military medical corpsmen. Four years later, Dr. Eugene Stead, chairman of the Department of Medicine at Duke University and pioneer of the educational fast tracking of doctors for service in WWII, inaugurated the nation's first PA program. 

The first class consisted of four former Navy medical corpsmen, though only three were able to complete the arduous program, graduating in 1967. The U.S. Air Force recognized the importance of this new kind of medical provider and became the first service to implement its own education and training program in 1971. 

Never far behind, sibling rivalry led the U.S. Army and Navy to create their own PA training programs later that same year. These programs remained separate entities until 1996, when a series of government cutbacks united each program into one, the Interservice Physician Assistant Program, or IPAP.

IPAP is a rigorous, 29-month program affiliated by the University of Nebraska Medical Center  and accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant. IPAP is open to all active duty Air Force members, senior airman  through senior master sergeant, with a minimum of two and no more than 14 years of active duty service. The program recently opened its doors to active-duty officers, second lieutenant through captain, with no more than four years of active duty service. 

Candidates must meet stringent application standards to include but not limited to: an Armed Service Vocational Aptitude Battery [ASVAB] general score of at least 80 percent; Scholastic Aptitude Test [SAT] reasoning test scores of at least 450, with a composite score of 1425 or better; and, a minimum of 60 semester hours of transferable college coursework with a 2.5 cumulative grade point average [GPA] and a 3.0 GPA for math and science prerequisites.

Upon completion of 16 months of didactic education in phase I at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, students will earn a Baccalaureate of Science degree and proceed to one of six phase II sites for Air Force personnel. 

A 13-month clerkship follows with more than 2,000 hours of clinical rotations in fields such as emergency medicine, surgery, and family practice. Phase II two culminates with the award of a Master's degree in Physician Assistant Studies, commissioning as a first lieutenant [enlisted personnel], and induction into the Biomedical Science Corps. 

Following graduation, students are eligible to take the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam. Once the national exam has been passed, the student becomes certified and thus able to practice medicine on a physician led team.
This profession has grown from three men and one program in 1967 to more than 105,000 practitioners having graduated from 170 programs today. The PA program has become an integral link in the health-care system, an invaluable purveyor of patient centered compassionate medicine, and an immense source of pride for both the military and civilian medical communities. Today, the physician assistant continues to answer the call that first rang out 47 years ago.

An informational briefing will be given on Friday, Oct. 10 from noon to 1 p.m., at the base education office, room 208.