Four PA Students Highlight Critical Role of National Health Service Corps for the Profession
As a key component of the Association’s advocacy agenda, PAEA regularly advocates for equal access to federal student loan and loan repayment opportunities for PA students.
This year, much of PAEA’s advocacy has focused on the National Health Service Corps (NHSC,) a critical funding source for PA students and graduates that advances PAEA’s vision of “Health for All” by expanding access to care in underserved communities. In the absence of congressional action, funding for the program is scheduled to lapse on September 30, 2023.
Created in 1972, the NHSC provides opportunities for educational aid, either via scholarships or loan repayment awards, to PA students and graduates in exchange for a service commitment in a designated health professional shortage area. Due to significant funding increases in recent years, the number of PA students in the NHSC student pipeline has risen from almost 125 in 2017 to more than 950 as of 2022.
PAEA’s Government Relations Team recently discussed the impact of the NHSC for the profession with four program participants from the California Baptist University (CBU) PA program: Alyssa Ayudante, Chelsey Cheatham, Srisha Jhangiani, and Frances Relampagos. These students advance a core pillar of the CBU PA program by being equipped to serve in underserved areas like the Inland Empire, which has the lowest number of primary care physicians in California. The students shared their path to the profession and how the NHSC will equip them to expand access to care.
What made you want to become a PA?
Alyssa: As a 10th grader in high school, I developed a passion for chemistry after I studied for and passed the Advanced Placement Exam. My mom, who is a registered nurse, suggested I volunteer at the local hospital. I volunteered at the Emergency Department for 100 hours, and I knew I loved it after the first day. While I knew I wanted to work in health care, I did not know which role was the best fit. I decided to continue volunteering.
One day, I witnessed a provider treating a patient who had dislocated/fractured their leg. Having limited knowledge of health care roles at 17-years-old, I assumed he was a doctor. He was very knowledgeable in his field, displayed a confident bedside manner, and practiced clear communication with the other medical staff. I peeked at his name tag and saw his title below his name: “Physician Assistant.” After doing some research when I went home, I was introduced to the role of the PA and knew this was the career I wanted to pursue.
Chelsey: The versatility of the PA profession attracted me. As a PA, you receive in-depth training and exposure to many different facets of medicine that will allow you to recognize and treat illnesses of all different kinds. This provides a solid foundation to volunteer in clinics, underserved communities, and medical relief. Being aware also that health care workforce shortages greatly impact underserved communities in rural and urban areas, the generalist medical training I will receive enables me to provide a wide spectrum of patient care, treat the “whole patient,” and makes it easier for patients to get the care they need when they need it.
Srisha: I wanted to become a PA, as we are trained as generalists, and the ease of lateral mobility allows us to care for diverse populations and work in various settings. This ability to change specialties helps meet the growing health demands of underserved communities. For example, moving from family medicine to psychiatry during a PA’s career is easy and common practice. Both of these specialties have a significant shortage of health care providers. As an NHSC Scholar, I look forward to becoming a PA and having the opportunity to help bridge this gap.
Frances: I chose the PA profession because it gives me a platform to bring healing to low-income communities while providing a greater focus on patient care. It does this by expanding access to health care and bridging the gaps in health equity to ensure we meet the health needs of our communities. In addition, the versatility of the profession allowing for lateral mobility is very unique, especially for people like me who have many interests in the field of medicine and want to work in various specialties.
What made you interested in working with underserved communities?
Alyssa: In seventh grade, I first started volunteering through opportunities provided by my school. Even though my initial intention in volunteering was to spend more time with my friends outside of class, it grew into something more than that. Community service ended up teaching me a lot about compassion and patience. Therefore, I am a big believer that volunteer work heavily overlaps with medical work. The most impactful experience I have had was tutoring students experiencing homelessness.
During 2019-2021, I provided grade K-12 students residing at a local shelter with homework support and supplemental learning by working with School on Wheels. The hardships these children face affect their academic performance and social engagement, even more so during the pandemic. Even though I was the one tutoring my students, they taught me a lot in return. Over the years of working with them, I learned how to advocate for individuals who experience the world through a different pair of lenses. I am excited about incorporating this into my patient interactions as a future health care provider.
Chelsey: I understand members from underserved communities have obstacles and a story which both impacts how they view health care and how they make decisions about their health care. My family lives in health professional shortage areas and, at times, cannot access timely medical care because of geographic distance. Serving the underserved presents an opportunity to make a positive impact within my own community and the larger society in which we all live.
Srisha: Before PA school, I had the opportunity to volunteer at a free clinic as a medical assistant. The patients at this clinic came from diverse cultural backgrounds, and I was inspired by the providers’ willingness to learn about diverse communities and collaborate with patients to facilitate positive health behaviors tailored to their needs. For example, when counseling a patient on diabetes management, a provider must consider the patient’s cultural needs to recommend certain diet modifications. The impact of practicing medicine with this mindset has inspired me and strengthened my desire to work with the underserved and uninsured. As an NHSC scholar, I look forward to having the opportunity to collaborate with my patients by keeping my patients’ social, cultural, and linguistic needs in mind.
Frances: Growing up in Blythe, CA, a small farm town near the Arizona border, I witnessed first-hand the harsh realities of living in a poverty-stricken town where access to resources was limited. Many people would often drive for hours to the next city just to receive quality health care. I’m interested in working with the underserved because I know how detrimental it can be to experience inequalities in health and receiving health care services. Thus, being a PA allows me to dedicate my time to serving underprivileged communities and ensuring that they, too, receive quality, equitable health care.
How did you learn about the National Health Service Corps?
Alyssa: I learned about the NHSC through the research I did when I was getting more serious in my pursuit of the PA profession. As I kept researching and attending conferences and meetings for pre-PA students, the NHSC scholarship/loan repayment program would come up often, and it struck my curiosity. As I researched the scholarship, it felt as if the pieces of the puzzle just fit together. I knew serving underserved communities was something I wanted to incorporate into my practice through my previous volunteer experience. I also knew that receiving financial support throughout my graduate education would allow me to go through PA school in a better mindset and thus perform better academically. So, when I first heard the news of receiving this scholarship, it gave me a feeling of hope and confirmation that I am right where I need to be.
Chelsey: To be honest, I can’t really remember. I remember wanting to join the Navy since I come from a family that’s served in every branch of the military except for the Army. In preparing to pursue that opportunity, I believe I learned about the NHSC Scholarship Program, and my family agreed it was a better fit for me since I am very outreach-oriented, always looking for opportunities to serve vulnerable communities.
Srisha: I learned about the scholarship through my undergraduate institution, University of California Irvine.
Frances: I learned about the NHSC program during my first year of PA school when a few of my colleagues became health scholars through the program. I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t apply for it sooner since the NHSC scholarship would have paid off my entire schooling while being in PA school. However, I stumbled upon another opportunity to become an NHSC scholar through their Student to Service Loan Repayment Program which offers up to $120,000 in student loan repayment for students in their final year of school for three years of service. I knew that I couldn’t miss out on this opportunity again, so I applied and fortunately, I was accepted as a finalist.
What advice would you give to other students or graduates interested in the National Health Service Corps?
Alyssa: The advice I would give to other students interested in NHSC (or anyone applying to PA school) is to do your research, take things slow, and check in with yourself. In the journey of deciding to be a PA, which PA school to attend, and to commit to NHSC, I spent a lot of time researching and sitting with my own thoughts. I wanted to make sure that I would say “yes” to these opportunities because they aligned with my values and my authentic self. Good things take time, and the hard work will be worth it!
Chelsey: Never forget why we exist. The PA profession was created to help remedy the shortage of primary care physicians. With the longstanding health care professional shortage only expected to get worse as baby boomers reach retirement age, choose to help people if it means less pay, longer hours, not as tech-savvy of equipment, or a nice posh facility. The NHSC is looking for people like you, and people are in desperate need of your services. Be committed to the why.
Srisha: I would tell them to apply as the scholarship is life-changing. The opportunity to work in a primary care setting as a new graduate PA after school in exchange for financial support during PA school is remarkable. In addition, the commitment allows me to gain exposure and experience working with the underserved, which I find fulfilling.
Frances: I think the NHSC program does amazing work in promoting access to medically underserved areas by allowing health care professionals the financial freedom to do so. If you’re interested in working with the underserved population and don’t want to be financially burdened by your student loans, then applying to the NHSC program is something to consider. They also offer webinars with Q&A sessions for prospective applicants if you want to chat with their representative and familiarize yourself with the various programs they offer.
To build upon the impact of the NHSC in these students’ lives, PAEA has partnered with the offices of Sen. Dick Durbin and Sen. Marco Rubio to support the bipartisan Restoring America’s Health Care Workforce and Readiness Act. If enacted, this bill would extend and increase mandatory funding for the NHSC through FY 2026 with funding levels increasing each year from $625 million to $825 million.
We would like to thank Alyssa, Chelsey, Srisha, and Frances for sharing their perspectives.
Members and students with questions about the NHSC are invited to contact Tyler Smith at tsmith@PAEAonline.org.