Ireland’s first ever cohort of PA students recently celebrated their graduation at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) Higher Degree Conferring Ceremony in Dublin. RCSI is the first higher education institute in the country to offer a Master of Science in Physician Associate Studies. The program began in January 2016, and the first cohort of six graduates is pioneering the profession in Ireland.
With students coming from a variety of first degree backgrounds (including general science, biomedical science, microbiology, athletic training, sports medicine, natural sciences, zoology, and health and performance science), this program offers a career pathway for countless students across the university system. Because the current focus of the education and training program is to qualify physician associates (PAs) who can practice in the Irish health care system immediately upon graduation, only applicants who already hold an Irish or EU passport are accepted into the program. For now, RCSI intends to keep student numbers low, allowing the role to be introduced gradually into the system and to expand the program as demand for qualified PAs grows. Although our first cohort of graduates may be small, it is not lacking in a diversity of backgrounds, with students having studied previously in the United States, Scotland, and Croatia.
A pilot PA project was introduced in January 2016 by RCSI in partnership with Beaumont Hospital (its major teaching hospital) and Ireland’s Department of Health. The purpose of the pilot was to evaluate the impact of PAs in addressing shortfalls in staffing. In Ireland, health care is a two-tiered system of public and private services. The government-funded public hospitals are owned and run by the Health Service Executive (HSE) or are voluntary public hospitals, which may be privately operated but funded by the government. The public system, although providing quality care similar to private hospitals, is over-burdened and waiting lists can be long, even for procedures that demand some urgency. The aim of the pilot project was to explore the contribution that the PA role could make to service delivery in four surgical units at Beaumont Hospital. While initially four PAs were recruited from the U.S. and Canada for the pilot between July and October 2017, only two PAs were in place for the second year of this pilot.
In agreement with the Department of Health, RCSI commenced its master’s degree in PA Studies in January 2016 to coincide with the introduction of the PA pilot project. The rationale for this decision was to gain the benefit of having qualified PAs in Beaumont Hospital who could mentor students in the program, both in the classroom and on clinical rotations.
The first cohort of students completed the program in December 2017 and celebrated their formal graduation ceremony in May 2018. These graduates are already working in the public and private sectors. The second cohort (13 students) will complete the program in December of this year, and a third cohort (11 students) is due to complete their studies in December 2019.
With the intention to slowly introduce the PA role into Ireland’s health care system and to evaluate the acceptance and demand for the role, we think we’re off to a very promising start.