PA Program Profile: Emory & Henry College

Nestled in the picturesque mountains of southwest Virginia, one of the newest PA programs aims to provide care for the underserved in their region. We sat down with Scott Richards, PhD, PA-C, founding chair and director of the program, to learn more about their focus on the underserved, mindfulness, and patient-centered care.

Tell me a little bit about how this program came about.

The Emory & Henry (E&H) College School of Health Sciences’ Master of PA Studies Program came about at the request of our local counties to aid in improving access to care for underserved patients throughout southwest Virginia. Our regional hospital system, Mountain States Health Alliance, and the Smyth County Community Foundation donated the former Smyth County Community Hospital and the 12+ acre campus to E&H on the condition that we would build the School of Health Sciences.

What do you think makes your program unique?

Aligning with the mission of E&H, we developed the MPAS Program to be truly student-centric and, in so doing, offer a curriculum that enhances learning, promotes student outcomes, and emphasizes student contentment. The program offers a week-long boot camp prior to the first day of class, covering lecture and exam examples from our courses, teaching academic success strategies, and introducing mindfulness strategies and the promotion of self-care to enhance success and contentment in the rigorous program.

Most of our classes utilize active learning strategies, including flipped classes, case-based learning, and team-based learning. Additionally, our student progressions committee follows the progress of each student on every exam to spot potential issues. This ensures the students are subsequently referred for the most appropriate resources to assist in their academic and professional success based on their individual progress.

Our program also has recognized the need to truly promote patient-centric care. With the motto, “It’s All About the Patient,” we promote student thinking to apply everything learned throughout the program directly to improve patient outcomes and positively enhance clinician-patient relationships.

Recognizing the seemingly ever-increasing difficulties in accessing high-quality and timely behavioral medicine/psychiatric care, and given our mission of improving access to high quality care for all persons, our program emphasizes rural care for the underserved and behavioral medicine/psychiatry. In fact, we have two full semesters of coursework specifically devoted to behavioral medicine/psychiatry and psycho-pharmacotherapy. All students are involved in seeing patients with behavioral medicine/psychiatric conditions at the Mel Leman Free Clinic (MLFC).

Can you talk more about how you teach mindfulness to your students?

Recognizing the enormous benefits of mindfulness practices in health care, our program offers a robust mindfulness training curriculum. In this curriculum, students learn various meditation strategies and practices, the continuous application of mindfulness in their own lives and in clinical practice, and the neurobiology of mindfulness, as well as specific training in hospice/palliative care. Along with our other clinical rotations, students complete a four-week clinical rotation in hospice/palliative care.

EHC School of Health Sciences Mountain View - Framed

What has been the biggest challenge your program has had to overcome so far, and how did you accomplish it?

In developing and implementing the E&H MPAS Program, we worked to overcome obstacles experienced in past programs at other colleges/universities. As with almost all programs, the greatest challenge has been recruiting and maintaining supervised clinical practice rotation sites. At our program, all our clinical faculty serve as clinicians at the MLFC at Emory & Henry College. Beginning in their first week in the program, students spend an average of four hours per week seeing patients in the MLFC. Students continue to see patients at the free clinic throughout the entirety of their didactic phase of training, precepted by their program faculty. At the MLFC, students gain first-hand experience in primary care, acute care, women’s health care, and behavioral medicine/psychiatric care. Additionally, students have the opportunity for interprofessional experiences in dentistry/dental hygiene, physical therapy, and occupational therapy.

Do you do any team-building or philanthropic activities with your cohorts?

Embedded in our program are practice experiences with MLFC. Here, students spend an average of four hours per week throughout their first year of training, precepted by program faculty who serve as volunteer clinicians at the clinic. This activity assists in the care of our areas’ uninsured and underinsured patients. In addition to this wonderful opportunity, faculty serve as volunteers for Remote Area Medicine (RAM), Smyth County clinic, held for three days each spring. During their didactic and clinical phases of training, our students participate as volunteers at these RAM events. And, in addition to those activities, our students also volunteer up to one weeks’ time assisting in various philanthropic activities throughout Smyth County.

We hear a lot about networking and collaboration in the PA world. How have you been able to collaborate with other programs or community members?

It is vital that PA programs collaborate with one another to ensure the region’s needs are being met and to ensure clinical rotation sites are available to meet the needs of the region’s programs. Attending PAEA conferences, particularly program director sessions, is an invaluable way to network with other directors and establish strong alliances. For us, in doing so, we created a very strong collaboration with Stephens College’s PA program. We work together on faculty and staff trainings, curriculum offerings, and student opportunities.

Any new ideas/projects on the horizon for your program?

Given our emphasis on mindfulness, behavioral medicine/psychiatry and hospice/palliative care, we are considering developing certificate programs in these three areas. The certificates can be completed simultaneously with our didactic and clinical curriculum such that students would graduate with their master’s degree and, potentially, a specialty certificate. Additionally, we are exploring developing post-graduate fellowships in behavioral medicine/psychiatry and hospice/palliative care, in addition to establishing a hospice/palliative care service.

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

Although this was not an issue for us, many new programs are employing program directors with limited experience in academics and PA education. The process of program development and accreditation can be completed with significantly less suffering and enhanced success with a seasoned program director or, alternatively, a consultant who has developed PA programs and is well versed in PA education and the accreditation process.