Freestanding Physician Assistant, Occupational Therapy programs approved for UT Pan American
Posted: 01/30/1999
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The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board voted Friday (Jan. 29) to approve transferring administration of two cooperative bachelor's degrees in physician assistant studies and occupational therapy to The University of Texas-Pan American.

The bachelor of science degree in occupational therapy is currently offered cooperatively with The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio as the degree-granting institution, and the bachelor of science in physician assistant studies is now being offered in collaboration with The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, with UTMB-Galveston as the institution awarding the degree. When the changes go into effect later this year, UTPA will award the degrees.

"Both of the cooperative programs have been very successful at UT Pan American, and we will continue to foster the strong relationships we have had with UTMB and the UT Health Science Center in San Antonio," said Dr. Miguel A. Nevárez, president of UTPA.

"We will continue to work closely with the Medical Branch to train physician assistants for medically underserved and rural areas," Nevárez noted.

UTPA will now have the only physician assistant studies program in Texas that is not located at a medical school. However, both UTMB-Galveston and UTHSCSA have pledged to support the program, UTMB and UTPA faculty members will serve on an advisory board for the program, and UTMB will continue to provide some coursework to the UTPA students via telecommunications.

"This transition was planned all along from day one when we started this program," said Dr. Jack Runyan, UTPA project chair of the PA program. "The only appreciable difference that the students will notice is in the degrees they receive. They will be UT Pan American degrees instead of UTMB degrees. Other than that, everything will remain pretty much the same, especially through the first year."

Senior students currently enrolled in the program will be UTMB graduates.

"Our current set of juniors will be transferred in as UT Pan American students at the beginning of their senior year, which will be the beginning of the summer session, and then they will graduate with UT Pan American degrees," Dr. Runyan said. "The cohort of students that we admit in the summer of 1999 will enter and graduate as UTPA students."

The cooperative program admitted its first group of students in summer 1994. That group graduated in 1996 and was followed by two additional graduating classes in 1997 and 1998.

The cooperative program has enjoyed high pass rates on the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination, administered by the National Commission of the Certification of Physician Assistants. In fact, all 25 of the program's 1998 graduates took the certification exam in October 1998 and passed, making it the only program in Texas with a 100 percent pass rate on the exam.

"It (pass rate) demonstrates that, despite the fact that we are not on a medical school campus, we are still capable of training didactically and clinically competent physician assistants who can practice and deliver quality health care in the Rio Grande Valley," Dr. Runyan said.

The program currently has 21 seniors and 18 juniors.

"Once we transition, beginning with the class that we will start in summer 2000, we will admit 30 students per year and we will probably remain fairly stable. I have no intentions of increasing that number in the very near future," Dr. Runyan said, adding that the demand for the program in the Rio Grande Valley is expected to continue.

Physician assistants work under the supervision of a physician. They can provide some primary care medicine, freeing the physician to take care of more complicated medical problems. Students enter the degree program after completing two years of prerequisites and general education requirements.

Prior to the initiation of the cooperative program, Rio Grande Valley students who wanted to pursue a physician assistant studies degree had to go to Houston, Galveston or Dallas for their educations, and tended to stay in those areas after graduation. The need for medical professionals in the Valley was one factor that prompted the agreement that brought the PA program to UTPA.

The cooperative occupational therapy program also was initiated with the expectation of making the transition into a freestanding UTPA program.

Judith Bowen, UTPA program coordinator for the cooperative occupational therapy program, says that students enrolled in the program also will notice little difference in the operation of the program from UTHSCSA administration to UTPA administration.

"It will be essentially the same program, the same faculty, and there should be no disruption whatsoever for the students," Bowen said.

"There will be purely mechanical things that will be different - students will apply through UT Pan American instead of the Health Science Center, and all of the services for the students will be here," she said.

Bowen said she expects the change to be effective fall 1999.

"Students who are currently enrolled will graduate from the Health Science Center, but the students coming in summer 1999 will be the first class to graduate from UT Pan American," she said.

Occupational therapists work with individuals who, because of physical, developmental, social or emotional problems, need specialized guidance to lead independent, productive lives.

The first cohort of students in the program started in May 1996, and 13 of the students graduated in December 1998, with two more from the first group scheduled to graduate in spring 1999 after completion of their field work. Seventeen seniors and 19 juniors are currently enrolled in the program.

Twenty students will be accepted this spring, with the number increasing to 22 in the future. There are no plans to increase enrollment beyond the 22, Bowen noted.

The program involves two years of academic work plus six months of field work. On completion of these requirements, the students sit for a national registry examination.

"I have been so pleased with the students," she said. "The number of students (enrolled) from the Valley has increased with every class, and all of us are impressed with the quality of students who are coming into the program. I think my greatest excitement is in seeing them grow as individuals and as future health care professionals."

One indicator of the importance of the program to the Rio Grande Valley was in the level of community support it garnered, particularly in the form of $150,000 donated by the Edinburg Hospital Authority to help fund start-up costs for the first two years of the program.

"What we are trying to build into this program as time goes on are increasing numbers of connections to the issues of the border community. We anticipate down the road that our field work opportunities, for example, will help to develop new sites for occupational therapists that simply haven't existed before. It's a health career through which students who pass the registry exam can practice anywhere in the country, but they will be coming out of a program that has a strong cultural connection with the Valley," Bowen said.