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UC would restart MSU's physician assistant program

Lawrence Pierce
University of Charleston physician assistant students Leann McKay tests the nerve reflexes of fellow student Caleb Jennings as student Chelsea Agnew and instructor Richard Bennett look on.
Lawrence Pierce Instructor Richard Bennett leads physician assistant students in a class about nerves.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As the first semester of the new physician assistant program at the University of Charleston ends, UC officials are making plans to restart a similar program once operated by Mountain State University.

UC took over the Beckley and Martinsburg campuses of Mountain State when that school closed its doors in January, after its accreditation was revoked because of a string of leadership and program oversight problems.

Students already enrolled in Mountain State's program will graduate from an accredited physician assistant program under the UC-Beckley banner.

After that, though, if UC wants to continue the physician assistant program in Beckley, the school must get approval from the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant.

"I believe the administration is interested in doing that," said Dr. Josephine Kahler, UC's dean of health sciences. "We definitely want to meet the needs of the southern parts of the state."

Kahler said UC hopes to get approval by 2017 to restart the physician assistant program in Beckley.

UC started its own physician assistant program at the Charleston campus in January. It's the third such program in the state. West Liberty University in the Northern Panhandle also recently started a PA program, and Alderson-Broaddus College in Philippi already had a physician assistant program.

Mountain State's program used to graduate 50 PAs each year. Now, West Liberty graduates 18 students and UC plans to graduate 30 each year, UC program director David Payne said.

"So between the two of us, we about make up the total being lost by Mountain State," Payne said.

Also, he said, because physician assistants are in demand right now, there are many schools that are looking to start training programs in that field.

"The profession is so hot right now that there's going to be anywhere from 60 to 80 new programs that pop up over the next six years or so," Payne said.

One reason for the high demand is the growing elderly population, Payne said. That population consumes about 80 percent of the nation's medical resources. With the elderly population set to double in the next 10 to 15 years, the demand for qualified professionals will only increase, he said.

Physician assistants can do many of the same things that doctors do, but the training takes less time, he said. The average PA program takes 27 or 28 months after a student has achieved his or her bachelor's degree.

After that, "they'll be able to start practicing right away, as opposed to the physicians' route -- four years of medical school and anywhere from three to six years of internships and residencies before they become board certified," Payne said.

The jobs pay well, Payne said -- between $70,000 and $100,000 per year, depending on experience and specialty.

UC's first cohort of physician assistant students started in January with 30 students.

The next group, which will start in January, is already more than halfway full. Seventeen of the 24 available slots are filled and officials anticipate having the rest filled by early summer, Payne said.

"The new program is going very well," Kahler said. "We certainly have very talented individuals who are working with students very close and ensuring they have all the resources they need to be successful."

Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.


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