A Fine Sherry: Nearly 300 Students and Counting

Finding good preceptors and clinical sites is one of the most pressing challenges in PA education, most educators agree. Having a few preceptors like Ken Sherry, PA-C, would certainly lighten the load. The PA at St. Luke’s Miners Hospital in Coaldale, Pennsylvania, has precepted nearly 300 students and observers in his 30-plus year career as a PA in general surgery.

For this lifelong project, he is being honored as the recipient of the 2018 AAPA/PAEA Preceptor of the Year award, given to a preceptor who has “demonstrated a commitment to excellence in the clinical education of PA students as a mentor and instructor.” The award is cosponsored by PAEA and the American Academy of PAs — one piece of the two organizations’ collaborative work on the clinical site shortage, a growing issue for PA programs and the profession. Sherry will formally receive his award at the AAPA Annual Conference in New Orleans later this month.

“I’d like to congratulate Ken Sherry on this well-deserved award,” said PAEA President Lisa Mustone Alexander, EdD, PA-C. “Preceptors like him are worth their weight in gold. We could not do what we do without them.”

According to PAEA’s 2015 By the Numbers: 30th Report on Physician Assistant Educational Programs in the United States, more than a quarter of programs found securing clinical sites “difficult or very difficult” in virtually every specialty, with much higher numbers in some specialties: women’s health and OB/GYN (83.9%), general pediatrics (77.1%), and behavioral/mental health (49.7%). PAEA data also show that more than a third (35.4%) of programs are now paying for sites and/or preceptors — a percentage that has grown markedly in the past decade.

A Lifelong Teacher

Sherry took his first student in 1987, his first year in practice, while working with Christine Bruce, PA-C, then the chief PA at the Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. Bruce has been an influential colleague for Sherry for most of his career and is the person who nominated Sherry for the preceptor award. When Bruce’s students at the relaunched Penn State College of Medicine PA program began clinical rotations in 2014, Sherry was naturally one of the first people she turned to. (He was also a graduate of the last class in the Penn State program’s earlier incarnation as Penn State Hershey, which ended in 1986 and restarted 28 years later under Bruce’s direction.)

Thirty years on, Sherry is still working with students and preparing them for the practice environment they will face after graduation. “It is in clinical practice that they develop the maturity to become a provider,” said Sherry. “They need to be dependable and knowledgeable in their role. I am concerned about turning out good clinical PAs for the workforce. They are representing our profession.”

“Ken makes students apply the critical thinking and application skills, which are vastly needed for the health care practitioner of today,” said Bruce. “He matures students along the way and makes them step outside of their comfort level in order to grow professionally.”

With nine PA programs within a two-hour drive, Sherry has become adept at politely declining requests to take additional students beyond the 12–15 he can take comfortably each year. But in a pinch he is always willing to help out. “If somebody is local to this area, we try to take them — we have a provider shortage here, after all. Or if a program has a hardship, or a rotation falls through, we’ll take the students without hesitation.”  

A Win-Win Situation

To PAs considering precepting students but wondering how much work it entails, Sherry offers many good reasons to choose to precept. For one thing, he said, students can learn a great deal on their own with just a little direction, though Sherry does devote time to teaching his students each day. “When I see something of interest on the EMR, I will point the students in that direction,” he said. “I’ll tell them, ‘Go and look at the diagnostic imaging and lab studies.’ I’ll have them write their own progress notes and follow up, and develop their role in obtaining the history.”

Another reason is that precepting students is often an extended interview for a job after graduation, as it is for many preceptors. “We have many vacancies,” said Sherry. “It’s really a win-win situation.” It’s also good for the patients, he added: “Having students talking to patients improves patient satisfaction. Patients like to see another person showing interest in helping them get better.”

And finally, of course, there is the joy of teaching: “I enjoy the satisfaction of seeing students show enthusiasm and appreciation to the preceptors when they are starting to feel comfortable and confident. That’s the most rewarding thing.”