2019 Education Forum Is All About Transformation — on Every Level

As the Education Forum, held this year in Washington, DC, cracked the 1,000-attendee mark for the first time ever, evidence of how much PA education, the PA profession, and PAEA have transformed over the past 30 years was on full display. And it’s clear we’re once again in a period of major transformation.

“The definition of transformation — as opposed to just change — is that after a transformation, there is no going back,” said PAEA President Jon Bowser, MS, PA-C, in his welcome to the Forum. “We live in a time when both health care and education are being transformed by a variety of forces: technological, financial, demographic, and cultural.”

“The way we teach, and the health care environment for which we prepare our students, are changing fast, and they are not going back.”
Jon Bowser, MS, PA-C

From the practice environment, to OTP, to the new 5th edition of the Accreditation Standards, the takeaway from the Forum was that the PA profession — along with the rest of the world — is transforming in unprecedented ways, requiring us to continuously adjust our way of thinking and approaching both opportunities and challenges. 

Opening keynote speaker Nido Qubein, president of High Point University in North Carolina, succinctly underscored that fact, pointing out that “Facebook owns no content; Uber owns no cars; airbnb owns no real estate. Yet, all are wildly successful.”

And Qubein knows a bit about transformations. Since becoming president of High Point in 2005, he has led the university through a remarkable metamorphosis, including tripling undergraduate enrollment and the number of faculty, the construction of 94 new or renovated buildings on campus, and adding six new academic schools, including a PA program.

He set the stage for the Forum by encouraging attendees to focus not only on the transformation of the profession and their program, but also of themselves. Qubein credited advice from his mother for helping him steer his own transformation as he was growing up. “The people you hang around with are the people you become,” she told him. “If you want to be successful, then hang around successful people.” He then challenged the audience: “Introduce me to your five best friends, and I’ll write a book about you.”

PAEA’s Ongoing Evolution

PAEA President Jon Bowser and Interim CEO Sara Fletcher discuss the state of the Association at the Forum. Credit: PAEA

During their address the following day, President Bowser and PAEA Interim CEO Sara Fletcher, PhD, continued the transformation theme, sitting comfortably in armchairs to “continue the conversation” that they have been having during this transitional year for PAEA. They spoke about how it is the responsibility of PA educators to prepare their students to go into a world that is rapidly evolving — with changes in health care delivery and technology, in the PA regulatory environment as OTP takes shape in some states, in the delivery of higher education, in accreditation, and possibly in the very name of the profession, as AAPA’s title change initiative proceeds. Guiding the profession through these times will require vision and leadership from many people, said Bowser. 

Bowser and Fletcher wound their conversation through a number of other key initiatives for PAEA. On the issue of diversity and inclusion, they applauded the new diversity standard in the 5th edition of the Accreditation Standards and the fact that the PAEA Board of Directors has committed to hiring a chief diversity officer in the next financial year (FY21). On assessment, they celebrated the launch of the new End of CurriculumTM exam, which promises to relieve many programs of the burden of writing their own exam questions and will also provide useful national benchmarking data. And above all, they emphasized the power of getting involved — of joining a committee, of taking full advantage of the Digital Learning Hub, and perhaps forging the kind of “reluctant path to leadership” that Bowser said he had followed.  

Working for Change
Many Forum-goers took time out of their schedules to advocate for PA education and the profession on “Hill Day.” Following a training session, more than 170 attendees traveled to Capitol Hill on Friday morning to meet with their representatives in Congress. Their main priority was to build support for the introduction of Senate companion bills to the House versions of the Physician Assistant Higher Education Modernization Act and the Physician Assistant Education Public Health Initiatives Act. Advocates conducted more than 80 meetings with Senate offices and discussed the key challenges facing PA programs in securing clinical sites, promoting research, and fostering access to education for students.

On the final day of the Forum, attendees were deeply moved by author David Sheff, who shared the story of his son’s decade-long struggle with addiction and what prompted him to write about it in his book Beautiful Boy, recently made into a film with Steve Carrell and Timothee Chalamet. His message was that we have to replace judgement for a “moral failing” with compassion for people stricken with the disease of addiction.

He recounted the story of his 11-year old son, who was discovered to have marijuana in his backpack. He said the principal told the boy’s parents what they wanted to hear: “Don’t worry, he’s a good kid.” “Instead,” said Sheff, “we all should have been trying to figure out what was happening in the life of an 11-year old that would make him want to get high.”

He emphasized that addiction is not just treatable but preventable and said we can save lives by recognizing that people are ill, not flawed in character. He noted that PAs are often in a position to be the first to recognize that someone needs help. As some attendees pointed out, his story wasn’t just moving, it was also especially relevant to the problems that PAs/providers are dealing with in the current opioid crisis — saying how it brought urgency for all PAs to be trained to combat this epidemic.

Leading the Transformation
Interim CEO Fletcher emphasized that, given our future, there’s never been a more important time to be a leader. And the recurrent message was that all of us are leaders. We just need to figure out where we fit in, where we can make a difference.

“Everyone has a to-do list, but who has a ‘to be’ list?
‘I want to become…’”
Nido Qubein

If you think of yourself as a leader, you can help in the transformation of your program and your students’ lives, said President Bowser. He went on to explain how PAEA is supporting members who want to move into leadership roles, through faculty development workshops, exciting volunteer opportunities, and our new Leadership Lab regional meetings.

“I’m convinced the people in this room will solve the biggest challenges,” Fletcher told the audience. And she’s most likely spot-on. The impressive turnout for this year’s Education Forum verifies the commitment of our members to stay involved and informed. And from what we heard, many of them plan to begin implementing what they’ve learned at the Forum as soon as they return to their program.

Qubein may have summed it up best: “When you discover your ‘why,’ you will always be able to figure out the ‘how.’” As PAs and PA educators, we know our “why“ — now we just need to perfect the “how.”