University of Alabama: Increasing Underrepresented Minorities

The University of Alabama at Birmingham Physician Assistant Studies program has been awarded a grant of $1,492,465 from the HRSA to expand mental health training for their students, increase the number of underrepresented in medicine, and extend clinical care to more underserved patient populations. 

In Alabama, 62 of the 67 counties fall under the federal definition of Health Professional Shortage Areas. More than one-third of recent UAB PA graduates serve in medically underserved areas, but everyone recognizes that number needs to rise even more. 

“I am excited that our PA students are being given more opportunities to reverse this disturbing trend and deliver more care to those in the most need.” 

Kathy Nugent, Ph.D., chair, Department of Clinical and Diagnostic Sciences, director, UAB Harbert Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship

“I grew up in a rural county in Alabama and I have seen first-hand the devastating impact on a community when health care options continue to disappear,” said Kathy Nugent, Ph.D., chair, Department of Clinical and Diagnostic Sciences, director, UAB Harbert Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “I am excited that our PA students are being given more opportunities to reverse this disturbing trend and deliver more care to those in the most need.” 

The HRSA grant is part of the program’s “PA Training Enhancement Initiative” and goes through 2026. It will enhance student training in opioid and other substance use disorders by delivering a specialized addiction medicine elective rotation that will be offered to five UAB PA students. In addition, this new elective rotation will also be offered to five physician assistant students from other PA programs across the nation, on an annual basis for the next five years. 

Wei Li, PhD
Wei Li, PhD, associate professor in at UAB.

“The substance use disorder – especially opioid addiction – is a pandemic in the United States. This grant will help us prepare PA students from our program, as well as other programs, in fighting this pandemic,” said Wei Li, Ph.D., the grant’s principal investigator and an associate professor in the UAB PA program. “Physician assistant students from other PA programs are welcome to apply for an opportunity to complete an elective in our newly developed addiction medicine rotation, with corresponding expenses being covered by this grant as a scholarship.”

As part of the new initiatives, the HRSA grant will provide the UAB PA program an opportunity to enhance their behavioral medicine didactic curriculum. New curriculum, including Mental Health First Aid, Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST), and Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) training will be added, in order to further develop student skills in recognizing and treating patients in the area of mental health. 

The National Alliance on Mental Health reports 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness. Considering the average primary care facility sees 20 patients per day, the physician assistant could encounter around four people experiencing mental illness daily. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the lives of many Americans across the country, especially with regard to their mental and emotional health.  

M. Tosi Gilford, MD, PA-C
M. Tosi Gilford, MD, PA-C, UAB Physician Assistant Studies program director

“Unfortunately, there are not a sufficient number of psychiatrists or psychologists to screen, evaluate, treat, and manage this growing population of patients. Ultimately, the burden of care will lie heavily on clinicians practicing in primary care and in the setting of urgent care and emergency medicine,” said M. Tosi Gilford, MD, PA-C, the grant’s co-investigator and director of the UAB Physician Assistant Studies program. “To ensure our students are prepared to meet the needs of these patients in a competent and compassionate manner, we are proud to be given an opportunity to expand our didactic and clinical training to equip students with the tools needed to assist in identifying, treating, and counseling patients with mental illness; and decrease the stigma of mental illness, in an effort to improve the cognitive, behavioral, and emotional wellbeing of the patient population in which they will ultimately serve.”

The Physician Assistant Studies program’s recent diversity efforts have witnessed a double-digit increase in the number of underrepresented in medicine students accepted to their incoming cohorts over the past two years. The HRSA grant will support an expansion of the recruiting and retention efforts of these students, to surpass the national average for physician assistant programs. Furthermore, the UAB PA program will intensify their efforts to facilitate the education of U.S. military veterans to honor their service and the history of the program. UAB PA is the second oldest program in the nation and was founded by military veterans in 1968. 

This is the second HRSA grant for the UAB Physician Assistant Studies program, which is housed in the School of Health Professions. In 2004, the program was awarded a grant to conduct risk assessments for sexually transmitted diseases and HIV. That grant resulted in the development of curriculum on recognizing risk behaviors in patients, and the training was also offered to visiting PA students from other programs across the country. 

Story originally published on the UAB website; reproduced with permission.