First Virtual Forum a Learning Experience for All

An experience born out of necessity — trying to recreate our annual Education Forum without endangering members or staff through travel and hotel stays — turned into a triumph as more than 1,500 PA educators (about 50 percent more than the previous highest attendance) came together online in the last week of October to support, network with, and learn from one another. The Forum featured two powerful keynote addresses, more than 80 hours of CME, daily online networking sessions, and most of the usual general sessions, including the Awards Ceremony, remarks from the president and CEO, and the annual election and business meeting. At that meeting members elected Kara Caruthers, MSPAS, PA-C, as president elect, along with three new directors at large — Shalon Buchs, MHS, PA-C; Shaun Grammer, DMSc, PA-C; and Robert Hadley, PhD, PA-C — and re-elected Janie McDaniel, MS, as secretary. Members also approved a revised version of the Competencies for the PA Profession and a revised policy supporting the master’s degree as the terminal and entry-level degree. (See separate article for details.)

How Can We Help?

In their closing remarks, President Howard Straker and CEO Mary Jo Bondy identified a number of themes that resonated throughout the meeting. Straker recalled two questions asked by Closing Keynote Speaker Dr. Bertice Berry about responding to the pandemic — What do you know? And How can you help? as a starting point for this discussion. “She knew, as we do, that as PAs and PA educators, we know a lot and there is much we can do to help,” said Straker. “We do the very best we can to make our students into the best clinicians they can be, so that they can provide the best care to patients. That is our reason for being.”

Bondy agreed, noting the tie back to the Opening Keynote remarks of Angela Duckworth, an expert on “grit.” “As Dr. Duckworth told us, ‘During times of challenge is when you need the growth mindset, Embrace the challenge, learn from it,’ ” Bondy said. “And the good news is that just as you can develop grit through intentional practice, you can also learn to learn, and learn to teach. There is a science to teaching and learning. And that is what our world of PA education, and our organization, is all about — learning.”

Learning Themes

And there was plenty of learning to be done, with more than 80 educational sessions in eight different tracks and 82 total hours of CME. Attendees could also peruse dozens of e-posters, all narrated by their presenters to allow for browsing at leisure. The Exhibit Hall was also online, like everything else, and more than ever it provided a glimpse of how technology is both changing education and responding to changes accelerated by COVID. Every vendor spoke of adapting to a new reality, and the likely long-term changes brought about by the rapid shift to online learning that programs had to handle in a short time. “The pandemic has affected everything,” said one vendor.

Other prominent Forum themes identified by Straker and Bondy included diversity – along with student and faculty well-being, technology, innovation, and leadership. “We learned a new term at this Forum,” said Bondy: “JEDI (for justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion); though these ideas have been central to our work for some time now.” Diversity was at the forefront of many conversations at the Forum, including the doctorate degree discussion at the Town Hall meeting, where more than one educator noted that while the doctorate issue is important, the single most vital issue for the profession is to produce a health care workforce that represents the country.

PAEA is currently in the process of hiring a chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer, who will take our work in this area to the next level, but as Straker emphasized, “We have embraced diversity as an organization, and we all have responsibilities to move this forward. At the town hall, members were asked to enter keywords into a software application as early input into PAEA’s new strategic plan – “Diversity” was big and bold at the center of the world cloud.

The Ongoing Conference

At this Forum we heard a lot about “silver linings,” about people finding opportunities amid the challenges, new ways to learn and grow and adapt. One silver lining to a virtual Forum is that it doesn’t have to end when the Ubers start leaving the hotel for the airport. Forum sessions will be available online through January 1, with 82 total hours of CME up for grabs. Forum registrants can check the Forum website to watch recordings of sessions they missed.

Another silver lining is the technology, and the spirit of collaboration, that has allowed PA programs and the Association to move their work forward despite the challenges of the times.  As Straker and Bondy noted, “This is one of the most important roles for PAEA – convening groups and connecting people. And we can now do that year-round better than ever.” All members are encouraged to set up their accounts on PAEA Learning and connect to the Digital Learning Hub and professional learning communities. The active portion of the Forum may be over, but the learning can continue indefinitely.