Sullivan University expanding healthcare programs

Sullivan University has been substantially growing its health sciences education programs, having established a College of Pharmacy and offering a Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing. University leaders then pondered, what’s next? How could Sullivan continue to fulfill a long-time commitment by the Sullivan family and the university’s board to expand access to healthcare in our community and into the medically underserved areas of Kentucky?

The decision was made to study, pursue and ultimately launch a Physician Assistant program.

“We decided it was the next logical step, a natural progression after launching the Nursing program and College of Pharmacy,” said Sullivan Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Tom Davisson, who helped spearhead the launch of the program. “We investigated and studied it and really see physician assistants as the wave of the future in the delivery of healthcare in Kentucky. We want Sullivan to be a part of addressing the needs of healthcare in Kentucky.”

Sullivan University, continuing its tradition as an innovative leader in health care education, launched its Physician Assistant program on June 30. In doing so, Sullivan became the first university in Louisville, and only the third in Kentucky, to offer a Physician Assistant degree program. Graduates of the program receive a Master of Science in Physician Assistant (MSPA).

“There are two things we look at when deciding on a new program,” Davisson explained. “One, is there a need in the healthcare community for the position we are looking at, and two, can our graduates find good-paying positions that offer a long-term career focus?

“When we looked at starting a Physician Assistant program,” he said, “both questions came with a strong yes.”

Physician assistants will be celebrated and recognized during the national Physician Assistant Week Oct. 6-12. They are common in some places around the country, including the East Coast, but physician assistants are relatively new to Kentucky.

“People in Kentucky don’t know what physician assistants are or do,” said Sullivan’s Gretchen Paruch, chair and founding program director and PA educator for over 30 years. “But PAs do what MDs do; they are trained in the medical model, not the nursing model, and function basically the same as a physician.”

Physician assistants – commonly referred to PAs – actually practice medicine as part of a team with the supervision of physicians and surgeons. They are formally educated as generalists who examine patients, diagnose injuries and illnesses, and provide treatment. Students prepare for a professional role as clinicians with an emphasis on care in the primary care setting and preventive health care, as well as acute and chronic disease management.

“It’s a profession and practice that has really grown,” Paruch said.  “When I left Philadelphia two years ago, there were seven PA programs in the Philadelphia area, and two more are now in the planning stages.  There are currently 18 programs in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

“I commend Sullivan University and Tom Davisson for recognizing the contributions PAs can make to improving access to health care,” she said.

PAs can conduct physical exams, diagnose and treat illnesses, order and interpret tests, counsel on preventive health care, assist in surgery, and can write prescriptions in all states. In working closely with doctors, PAs are authorized and trained to make medical decisions and provide a broad range of diagnostic and therapeutic services.

According to the Kentucky Academy of Physician Assistants, PAs came into existence in the mid-1960s, when physicians and educators recognized there was a shortage and uneven distribution of primary care physicians. To expand the delivery of quality medical care, Dr. Eugene Stead of the Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina put together the first class of PAs in 1965. He selected Navy corpsmen who received considerable medical training during their military service and during the war in Vietnam but who had no comparable civilian employment. He based the curriculum of the PA program in part on his knowledge of the fast-track training of doctors during World War II.

Career prospects for PAs are strong. According to the United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of physician assistants is projected to grow 38 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations. Increased demand for healthcare services from the growing and aging population and widespread chronic disease, combined with a shortage of physicians, will result in increased demand for physician assistants.

Forbes magazine reported in June that topping its list of best degrees to pursue is Physician Assistant, “with a $97,500 mid-career median salary and whopping 38 percent projected job growth over the next 10 years.”

Sullivan’s MSPA degree program is 24 months in length. The curriculum consists of a 12-month didactic phase and a 12-month clinical phase.

“Every state wants to do what it can to improve healthcare,” Paruch said. “Right now, there is a lack of education among the general public and even the medical community as to what PAs are and what they do. But Sullivan’s program will enhance the awareness and need for PAs. That’s good for our current and future students and is good for Kentucky.”