UW Today

August 31, 2011

Alaskas first class of physician assistants graduates

UW Health Sciences/UW Medicine

Fifteen University of Alaska Anchorage physician assistant students were awarded Physician Assistant Certificates from the UW School of Medicine Aug. 18 at Wendy Williamson Auditorium on the UAA campus.

The group – Class 1 – is Alaskas first graduating class through the MEDEX Northwest Physician Assistant (PA) Program, a collaborative partnership between the University of Washington School of Medicine and UAA. The programs flagship site is in Seattle with locations in Spokane, Yakima and, most recently, Anchorage.

UAA Chancellor Tom Case and U.S. Senator Mark Begich were among the dignitaries who attended the graduation ceremony and congratulated Alaskas first class of physician assistants. Other speakers included Thomas Nighswander, assistant regional dean, WWAMI School of Medical Education; Ruth Ballweg, division chief, MEDEX UW PA Program; and Cheryl Easley, dean, UAA College of Health.

PAs are licensed healthcare professionals that practice medicine with physician supervision. They conduct physical exams, diagnose and treat illnesses, order and interpret tests, counsel on preventive health care, assist in surgery and can write prescriptions.

The need for PAs continues to grow across Alaska due in part to a lack of primary care physicians and surgeons in rural communities. Class 1 will blaze new trails in a state that is dealing with not only a physician shortage, but also health access issues in remote areas that are off Alaskas road system. PAs often work autonomously in remote locations but have 24/7 access to their collaborative physician by phone, in addition to monthly site visits.

Twelve of the 15 students are Alaskans, and all but one of the 15 graduates intends to stay in Alaska to seek employment.

“There is very strong data that shows that where physician assistant students do their clinical rotations is where they stay,” said John Riley, MEDEX program coordinator. “We have a class of self-selected pioneers who signed up to be in the first Anchorage PA class. I hope they will become advocates in their communities for improving health care. I believe they will be instrumental in improving access to health care for Alaskans.”

Graduates of this first class also are eligible to earn bachelors degrees in health sciences from UAA. Upon the successful completion of the program, graduates are eligible to sit for the National Certifying Exam for Physician Assistants.