PA Program Profile: University of the Pacific

The University of the Pacific in California has a long history dating back more than 165 years. Now, the school is bringing much-needed health care expertise to the state’s Central Valley, which stands to benefit greatly from a boost to its health care workforce.

We recently had the chance to speak with Program Director Mark Christiansen, PhD, PA-C, about this new program to gain some insights into its creation and its future. Enjoy!

How did your program come into being?

University of the Pacific was established in 1851 as California’s first chartered institution of higher learning. As an innovative higher education institution, Pacific provided the state with its first chartered medical school in 1858. The university now spans three northern California cities – Stockton, Sacramento, and San Francisco – and provides a rich blend of liberal arts and professional education.

Pacific is well-known for excellence in our health science programs, which include the Thomas J. Long School of Pharmacy and Health Sciences and the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry. In the past several years, the university has launched new graduate degree programs including the Master of PA Studies Program on the Sacramento campus welcoming its first class in January of this year. The Department of PA Education is housed administratively in the School of Dentistry and has strong interprofessional ties with the other health science programs at the university and graduate school.

Students of the University of the Pacific PA program. Credit: Jaslyn Gilbert, University of the Pacific.

Students of the University of the Pacific PA program. Credit: Jaslyn Gilbert, University of the Pacific.

What do you think makes your program unique?

Although the program is new — with the first class of 45 students starting the 27-month program this past January — the faculty and staff of the program are very experienced.  Many members of the team have 15 or more years of practice experience in their respective specialties, and several of the faculty and staff have between 10 and 25 years of experience in PA education.

With no PA training programs located in California’s Central Valley — one of the areas of highest medical need in the state — the program has made a concerted effort to recruit students from nearby communities and to develop extensive clinical training sites in the area. Long-term relationships are being established with communities and health systems in an effort to meet the health workforce needs of the area.

One other unique feature of our program is the development of “clinical track” programs during the elective rotations of the clinical education portion of the program. This program will allow students with an interest in certain areas of practice to complete up to three months in an area such as primary care, rural medicine, emergency medicine, surgical specialties, and some medical specialties. Once a track is chosen, students would then do all three of their elective rotations in that area of practice at one or more clinical sites. We feel that this will allow our graduates to come out of their clinical training with significantly more experience in their area of interest than what most new PA graduates have. This concept has been very popular with our students and with many of the preceptors who want to hire our graduates.

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

Over the past few years, Pacific has been going through some rapid growth with new programs opening primarily on the Sacramento and San Francisco campuses. Our new motto is “three cities, one university.” Although this sounds great, the reality of being physically located on one campus, having our administrative home located on a second campus, and having much of our interprofessional activity with programs on the third campus has presented some interesting challenges. The university has been quite generous in providing a top-notch facility with state-of-the-art technology, which has helped with some of the challenges, but with the rapid growth of programs, it has taken some effort to figure out how everything is going to work across the three campuses. We are getting there.

Students of the University of the Pacific PA program. Credit: Jaslyn Gilbert, University of the Pacific.

Students of the University of the Pacific PA program. Credit: Jaslyn Gilbert, University of the Pacific.

What are you doing to foster innovation in your program?

The program is actively developing interprofessional education (IPE) events with the school of dentistry, the school of pharmacy, and the physical therapy program. The university has long-range plans to add other health science programs to the offerings at the three campuses. Members of the faculty and staff will be actively engaged in these initiatives.

We are also utilizing many adult teaching and learning tools. We have worked with the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) curriculum designers to bring innovation into the classroom and skills labs. Our Clinical Skills course includes hands-on learning using task trainers, simulation, and standardized patient (SP) experience. Our most recent purchase is a state-of-the-art ultrasound machine. With the help of the radiologist who is part-time on our faculty, we will be developing a curriculum to teach point-of-care ultrasonography to our students.

The design of our clinical education allows interested students to choose a pathway track during the elective rotations to enhance their experience and skills in a specific clinical area. Pathway tracks will be available in primary care, rural medicine, and emergency medicine, as well as several medical and surgical specialties.

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

Draw upon the strengths of your university. Seek to become an active part of the learning community and help to fulfill the mission of the institution. At Pacific, we have been able to build upon the strong presence of the university in the area and upon the stellar reputation of the other health science programs at Pacific. Taking this path has opened doors for us at clinical sites and with other programs and departments within the university. Use the accreditation process to ask for and receive strong support from the institution and its established community partners.