PAEA Gathers Experts to Consider Entry-Level Degree

The PAEA-organized Doctoral Summit in Charlotte, North Carolina, on March 13-15, accomplished what the event was intended to do and what it was intended not to do.

Several speakers made the point that the Summit was never intended to resolve the question of whether a doctoral degree should be the entry-level degree for PAs or whether the master’s degree should continue as the minimum requirement.

The event was not even intended to reach a recommendation for the PAEA Board of Directors, who will put a position policy on the issue before programs, to be voted on at the Business Meeting in October.

Linda Sekhon, DHSc, PA-C, and president of PAEA’s Board of Directors, said she hoped the members of programs who weren’t at the summit would understand that no decision happened, and the goal of the summit was to share information.

“We wanted to identify and hear voices and to allow the PAEA Board of Directors to take all of this information and pull it together in order to have that discussion during the next step in this process,” she said.

However, the summit, organized by the Doctoral Summit Steering Committee, chaired by Nicole B. Burwell, PhD, MSHS, PA-C, did accomplish a great deal of learning, interaction, exploring, sharing, and unity toward the purpose of improving the profession for established practitioners and the students of today who will be future leaders.

Jacqueline Barnett, DHSc, MSHS, PA-C, who is a program director at the Duke Physician Assistant Program and treasurer of PAEA’s Board of Directors, was pleased that the summit was “very inclusive of some of the stakeholders we really needed to hear from” including educators, students, employers, alumna, hiring agencies, and others.

“I thought there were a lot of voices in the room – a lot of differing opinions, which we expect. When you get 10 different people in a room, you’re more than likely going to get 10 different opinions,” she said.

It was a busy few days at the hotel that hosted the event. PAEA worked with the Center for Applied Research (CFAR) to manage the discussion and to keep ideas flowing, conversations on track, and suggestions useful.

Participants were asked to test ideas about the future for PAs whether they had a master’s degree or a doctoral degree when entering the profession. To prevent the “echo chamber” effect, participants who had been part of a discussion looking at one facet were then asked to travel to a different group to hear what ideas had been generated from those with another perspective.

We were able to have constructive dialogue even in the face of disagreement, and I think people came to the table with their minds open, willing to listen, willing to learn, and willing to have their minds – if not fully changed – at least help understand the breadth and depth of other perspectives.

Stephane P. VanderMeulen, MPAS, PA-C

The experts at the summit had been asked to come to the event having reviewed some of the latest research. Many also brought their own personal experience, in some cases from what they learned becoming a PA, in other cases from their time teaching future PAs and for some veterans of PAEA, what happened when the field moved to the master’s degree as the entry-level requirement.

Walking across the room, one could hear some of the participants sharing their opinions with a group of people looking at a particular issue, such as:

  • “What challenge would be improved if the doctoral degree became the entry-level requirement?”
  • “How would the change affect access into the profession?”
  • “If future PAs were perceived to have greater parity with professions like nurse practitioners, what opportunities might become available and how much more could a young PA accomplish over the course of her career?”

Other times, there were groups of two to three people, some of them sharing the kind of shorthand gained when people have known each other and their profession for many years. The trust in each other was clear but that only seemed to provide the basis for even more varied perspectives to be shared and seeds of new ideas to be planted.

David Beck, MPAS, PA-C, and chair of the Department of PA Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, said he found the event “very much informative and informing.”

Beck said he has a strong interest as the leader of an educational program in the PA field but noted there were many other perspectives represented at the summit.

“From the private sector with health care administrators to other program directors to the professional organizations, there’s just so much information coming from so many angles that what I thought I understood about this question was nowhere near the totality. I don’t even know that I – or we – are there yet. There’s so many dynamics to this that matter that need to be carefully considered but at the same time, we need to weigh the progress of the profession against being responsible. It’s very challenging. I’m learning a lot but also, I’m enjoying being able to share my perspective,” he said.

Attendees had come to Charlotte prepared to discuss the issue. Barnett noted that the Doctoral Summit Steering Committee, whose members compiled research and conducted more than 40 interviews, “really laid the foundation” with materials like a briefing deck that both supplied data and suggested some areas of further consideration.

“That briefing deck really asked us to think about several questions as we went into the meeting,” she said. “I think people came in prepared by having that deck (a Power Point presentation) that provided some of the data, some of the talking points, some of the pros, some of the cons, (and) looked at other professions.”

Bettie Coplan, PhD, PA-C, associate professor at Northern Arizona University, said she believed the Doctoral Summit was a “good start,” but she would like to see future discussions have more representation from PA students and early career PAs.

Coplan had a positive experience at the summit, however.

“There was so much discussion, and it was so nice to be able to talk to folks from AAPA and administrators as well as educators and we had a few student perspectives. I’m going to have to digest it all to really come up with (a decision) that I would think, ‘Oh, yeah, this seems like a way to go,’ … Everything is a push-pull. No matter what decision we make, there’s going to be pros and cons either way. I’ll have to sit and digest it a little bit,” she said.

ARC-PA, AAPA, and NCCPA were represented along with PAEA at the summit. The leaders of the Four Orgs said they had not taken a position on the doctoral degree as a requirement for becoming a PA.

Carolyn Bradley-Guidry, DrPH, MPAS, PA-C, said she also expected her full response to the “rich discussion” would come after she had the chance to look at all the information as something to “take away and meditate on.”

“I was honored to be invited, to be a part of this discussion. As an individual of color, I feel honored to have a voice at the table. I do think that there is more work to be done. We need to hear from our students. We need to hear from practicing PAs. We need to hear from more of our community before a final decision is made but I do think this summit added value by allowing us to understand first-hand the work that has been done and what is needed in the future before we come to a final decision,” she said.

Stephane P. VanderMeulen, MPAS, PA-C, said she was impressed to see the conversations were collegial and constructive even when those in attendance had different perspectives.

“People brought many different lenses to this conversation and they’re all important lenses, and there were perspectives that need to be taken into account as we move forward as a profession in unity with this decision. We were able to have constructive dialogue even in the face of disagreement, and I think people came to the table with their minds open, willing to listen, willing to learn, and willing to have their minds – if not fully changed – at least help understand the breadth and depth of other perspectives,” she said.

Several of the exercises during the Summit involved asking participants to use posterboard to write down thoughts on a particular issue like how moving in a particular direction might have an effect over an extended period. With many experts in the room, at different levels of experience and with multiple backgrounds, the pieces of paper were quickly filled with many more ideas than could have been considered or suggested without such a large and diverse group of participants.

While no official position policy has been crafted, program directors may want to start giving thought to how they’ll discuss the issue and encourage conversation with their faculty and staff.

Coplan offered some advice to members that were not present at the summit for researching the doctoral degree question.

She said PAEA has done well in releasing information in similar situations that helps members learn more so they can make their own decision. For instance, Coplan referenced a thorough report ahead of the PA name change.

“It was really enlightening. I had an opinion. Then I read that report and my opinion changed. I think there’s going to be something thoughtful that comes out of this (summit.) I would highly encourage people to thoroughly read all the materials that come out of this because I think opinions and perspectives (in the room during the summit) were changed,” she said.

The next steps in the process are expected to be the creation of a report that collates the information, opinions, and questions from the summit to be submitted to the PAEA Board of Directors and a position statement to be crafted informed by the report.

The position statement will be voted on by members at the annual Business Meeting in October.

For more information about this event and this issue, watch future editions of the Networker and the PAEA website. Along with upcoming articles and editorials, there will be videos that allow you to hear directly from PAEA leaders and experts about what they learned, how they prepared, and what they recommend for programs and members to prepare for the October vote.