Expanding the PA Pipeline Through a Hands-on Experience

“Growing up in the small towns of the Midwest, I was usually the only student of color in my classrooms. SMDEP made me believe in myself and helped me find strength and support by providing a network of people who invested in me. This experience made me realize that I can succeed in my personal endeavors and that I am not alone in the challenges I face.”

                                               — Moman Nasir, University of Nebraska program, 2014

“This program helped me mature as an individual and really understand what I need to do to achieve my dream of becoming a physician. It gave me the opportunity to experience life as a medical student and learn about different specialties, allowing me to really believe that I have what it takes to become a physician.”

                                               — Omar Shaban, University of Virginia program, 2015

Comments like these from previous participants of the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP) illustrate the life-changing effect it had on their future careers. Now, students interested in a PA or other health professions career can enjoy the same experience through this outstanding program, which has been renamed the Summer Health Professions Education Program (SHPEP).

SHPEP is a free, six-week program, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), that seeks to increase the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity of students entering the health professions. This summer, 13 institutions around the country will be hosting SHPEP. Several of them have PA programs, including the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC), which has been hosting SMDEP for more than a decade. Now, with new funding from RWJF, UNMC will be expanding the program to include other health professions. This summer they are expecting a total of 80 students, with 10 seats dedicated to the PA career curriculum.

Michael Huckabee, PhD, MPAS, PA-C, is part of the team at Nebraska that will be co-leading case study discussions and interprofessional learning activities for the entire group. He said the PA-specific curriculum will include:

  • Shadowing PAs in clinics and hospitals
  • Anatomy lab learning exercises
  • Clinical skills exercises including basic suturing skills, an auscultation lab, and surgical skills with simulation technology, as well as exploring ultrasound technology and telemedicine applications

“The SHPEP environment at UNMC nurtures an important social climate of peer engagement and mentoring by PA faculty that fosters character development and professionalism,” said Huckabee. “It paves the way for students to be successful in applying to and completing a PA education program.”

Sharing the Experience

This will be the first year that the SMDEP, now SHPEP, will be held at the University of Iowa, which is also planning a pre-PA component.

Denise Martinez, MD, assistant dean for Cultural Affairs and Diversity Initiatives at Iowa, was the primary investigator for the SHPEP grant and is also an alumna of the program. She said if she hadn’t done SMDEP as an undergraduate, she never would have applied to medical school. “It gave me the mentorship and roadmap necessary to be a successful applicant.”

The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) will also be hosting SHPEP — for the first time in more than 10 years. Kara Caruthers, MSPAS, PA-C, who is on the faculty at UAB and also serves on the PAEA Board of Directors, will be coordinating PA-specific activities and advising the pre-PA students.

Participants in the PA portion of the program at UAB will get PA-specific career development in regards to the application process and goal mapping, as well as access to current PA students and the PA faculty. Caruthers said they also anticipate introducing the students to history and physical examination techniques as well as other hands-on clinical skills.

“Including the PA profession will provide an opportunity for students early in their college career to explore becoming a PA as an option,” said Caruthers. “It is also critical that students who are set on dentistry or medicine also become familiar with the PA profession, as it is essential to collaborate with other health care professions for the holistic care of patients.”

“The students will develop connections to the faculty and staff and also with each other — connections that will last for years to come,” said Iowa’s Martinez.

Who Should Apply

Since the SMDEP program began in 1989, more than 20,000 students have participated. Funding from RWJF covers all expenses, including travel, housing, and meals. Rising college sophomores and juniors from underrepresented backgrounds (including underrepresented minority students, first-generation college students, rural students, and low-income students) are encouraged to apply.

“Iowa is a rural state, and as such, we would like to encourage students from very rural areas to apply to this program,” said Iowa’s PA Program Director Tony Brenneman, MPAS, PA-C. “We also want to encourage those students who are from inner cities, low-socioeconomic regions, and migrant populations. There is a tremendous need in our state for individuals who can go back and provide care in these regions/populations after getting their degrees.”

The reason for the inclusion of the PA profession in SHPEP is clear. “The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation places value on building a ‘Culture of Health,’” said Martinez, “and knows that PAs are vital to our health care system currently and will be in the future.”