Program Profile: Never a Dull Moment at the Penn State PA Program

The Penn State PA Program puts a special focus on team-building, serving the underserved, and preparing its students to work in primary care. But that’s just the beginning. When we asked Program Director Chris Bruce what makes the PA program unique, it was hard to know where to start — and end.

The Penn State PA Program is relatively new. Can you tell us about the mission and the thought behind the creation of this program?

The Penn State College of Medicine PA Program’s mission is to prepare graduates to be academically, clinically, professionally, and culturally competent in the delivery of health care services to patients in the community in which they will practice. Our PA program fosters an attitude of student-centered learning that puts the focus of education on preparing our graduates to apply clinical reasoning and an evidence-based approach in a compassionate, comprehensive, and cost-effective manner.

Our modern educational techniques and emphasis on active student engagement promote deeper learning and make the material taught in the preclinical curriculum more applicable to what is needed at the patient’s bedside.

What would you say makes your program unique?

Our small class size of 30 students allows us to support our students in ways that are truly student-centered. Students are provided learning opportunities that extend beyond the classroom at our academic medical center. Penn State’s support for this program is demonstrated in several ways:

  • Tuition and fees for the PA program were frozen for two consecutive academic years.
  • Our HRSA primary care grant reimburses travel expenses for students to our underserved primary care sites.
  • Our AHEC affiliation allows our entire class to rotate at medically underserved communities without incurring any additional expenses.
  • Students sent to rotation sites more than one hour away have housing covered by Penn State.
  • Students have 24-hour access to our simulation center for additional hands-on practice of clinical skills.

For our admissions process:

  • We use actual patients (not standardized patients) as part of our interview day.
  • Candidates actively participate in team-based learning exercises on interview day so that they get a sense of how we deliver our education.
  • Our interviews are done in small group sessions so that applicants can truly get to know whether our program is a good fit for them.

Adding to the uniqueness of our program is the fact that we have two Harvard Macy Health Professions Institute Scholars on the faculty, and our ethics course provides interprofessional education opportunities by combining the College of Medicine second-year students with our first-year PA students.

How does your program encourage and strengthen inclusiveness and diversity, both in its admissions process and the curriculum?

Penn State ropes teamwork cropped

New students work together on a ropes course as part of orientation. Photo credit: Eric Patten

Our program recruits and enrolls students who have compelling stories to tell. While we have an emphasis on preparing students for the practice of primary care, our main educational focus is to prepare students for entry into clinical practice. Our holistic admissions’ process allows us to enroll students who self-disclose a disadvantage. Since the institution of the program, we have averaged 50 percent of the class disclosing a disadvantage. We have a strong military veterans’ presence in our program, and these students are invited to participate in various on-campus veterans’ events.

Our curriculum includes scheduled time for self-reflection and discussion of topics supporting the care of a diverse patient population. For instance, we have nationally recognized experts in transgendered medicine delivery curriculum content to our learners.

It seems like you always have some new initiative in the works. What have you been up to lately?

Our team-based learning sessions now include students giving oral presentations on the patients discussed in the case scenarios in order to provide them with additional practice. We start class with brief teaching sessions that allow the students to reflect on material previously covered in class and to apply critical thinking skills.

We are challenging our clinical education students with spaced learning questions and performing reciprocal teaching events during the call back rotation days. Students are sent a list of rotation-specific questions during each rotation; then after returning their answers to the assigned teacher, they receive feedback regarding their responses.

We are altering our curriculum to include immersive practice for the physical exam course, which will follow the topic areas covered during our integrated clinical medicine, pathophysiology, and pharmacology courses. We have transitioned a traditional lecture-based three-semester pharmacotherapeutics course into a three-semester team-based learning course, which allows the students to apply the material that is learned during these sessions.

How have you collaborated with other programs or surrounding communities?

Our primary collaboration is with the other health care programs as part of our interprofessional education. We entertain students from other colleges who are training physical and occupational therapy students, social workers, pharmacists, and chaplains, and we work with our own nursing and medical students. We host more than 350 student learners on our campus for each interprofessional educational experience several times per year.

PD Chris Bruce presents white coat to first-year student Emma Lamothe. Photo credit: Darrell Peterson

PD Chris Bruce presents a white coat to first-year student Emma Lamothe. Photo credit: Darrell Peterson

What has been the biggest challenge your program has had to overcome — and how did you handle it?

As a new program, we are constantly looking for and finding meaningful ways to have our learners work together in the preclinical curriculum. We have brought together medical students and PA students in various preclinical courses focused on the ethics of health care and interpretation of radiologic images, which allows us to incorporate our humanities and anatomy curriculum. (Penn State College of Medicine is recognized as having the first department of humanities in the country.)

If you could give developing programs one piece of advice, what would it be?

Since PA education is truly unique in developing competency-based education — training students to be ready for entry into clinical practice, hiring faculty who are able to prepare students for these roles is essential. Putting the right team together with everyone supporting these learners is key to building a successful program.