SAN ANTONIO (Oct. 14, 2008) — The Physician Assistant (PA) Studies program in the UT Health Science Center San Antonio’s School of Health Professions just received a three-year, $346,915 grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration, part of the Department of Health and Human Services.
The grant will provide reimbursement to faculty members who travel between San Antonio and the Laredo Campus Extension (LCE), travel funds for students receiving clinical training throughout South Texas, financial assistance to help with costs associated with student community health and medicine projects, and funds for faculty development.
PAs help fill a critical need for health care providers in South Texas. Most of the 38 counties the Health Science Center serves have been designated collectively by the federal government as a medically underserved area, meaning there are not enough health professionals to treat those who need care.
PAs work with the supervision of physicians to diagnose and treat patients. They also teach their patients about good health practices.
“This grant is going to help several aspects of our program,” said Dennis Blessing, Ph.D., PA-C, distinguished teaching professor and chair of the Department of Physician Assistant Studies. Dr. Blessing also serves as associate dean for South Texas programs in the School of Health Professions.
The Health Science Center offers a three-year master’s degree program in PA Studies.
Supporting the needs of South Texas students
Offering a cohort of students the opportunity to attend their first year of classes at the LCE helps recruit South Texans into the highly competitive program.
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“There are very strong family ties in South Texas and grandparents or other relatives often provide child care while the children’s parents work or go to school. Due to lower income levels in rural areas, this is often the only way some students can enter our program,” Dr. Blessing said.
Students in Laredo learn along with classmates in San Antonio via videoconference and on-site lectures by faculty members who live in Laredo and those who drive there from San Antonio. The grant will help support this effort by reimbursing travel funds for faculty.
Promoting community service and health education
A core part of the PA program is community service. Upon acceptance into the program, students are encouraged to help with health fairs, preschool and sports physical exams, and other community health efforts. These volunteer experiences not only help PA students better understand the populations and health issues they will encounter as health professionals, but they also give them an opportunity to educate the community about important health issues and good health practices.
During their second year students attend classes in San Antonio with first-year medical students. It is during this second year that students conduct their capstone project, a community service medicine project that they research, design and implement.
An example of the high caliber of these capstone projects is a health fair conducted last spring in Beeville by four PA students — Callie Bowman, Melissa Shearer, Jennifer Emmel and Brandie Crabtree. It was the first health fair conducted in Bee County in more than 30 years.
“We began planning the health fair in August for our event in May,” said Bowman, who grew up in Beeville and proposed the idea. “We assessed the community by handing out surveys asking what health issues people would be most interested in learning about. Diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol were the top three. We then asked for donations by delivering letters to all the local businesses. We ended up raising $13,985, including a $1,500 grant from the PA Foundation and a $500 grant from our PA department, which helped out tremendously.”
They worked with community partners, such as CHRISTUS Spohn Hospital, whose lab technicians drew blood samples and processed the blood work.
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In the end, more than 300 people received free health screenings and nearly 50 health problems were discovered, including high blood pressure, hearing loss and acute vision problems associated with diabetes. The new grant funds will help support future capstone projects.
Clinical training offered throughout South Texas
During the third year of the program, students receive clinical training in such specialties as family practice, pediatrics, surgery, obstetrics/gynecology, emergency medicine and research. They travel to physician offices and clinics throughout South Texas including Laredo, the Lower Rio Grande Valley and as far north as Austin for six-week rotations. The grant will provide funding to assist students with some of their travel expenses.
“The ultimate goal is to give bright, motivated students from South Texas the chance to earn a PA degree so they can return to their hometowns and provide care for their communities,” Dr. Blessing said. “All of our projections show that PAs will be in great demand for the foreseeable future.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the PA profession is expected to grow about 20 percent annually over the next decade. PA salaries are projected to be between $70,000 and $80,000, with the highest demand for PAs in rural and inner city locations.
The grant will help the Health Science Center invest in its program to provide more health care providers for South Texas communities.
The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio is the leading research institution in South Texas and one of the major health sciences universities in the world. With an operating budget of $668 million, the Health Science Center is the chief catalyst for the $15.3 billion biosciences and health care sector in San Antonio’s economy. The Health Science Center has had an estimated $35 billion impact on the region since inception and has expanded to six campuses in San Antonio, Laredo, Harlingen and Edinburg. More than 23,000 graduates (physicians, dentists, nurses, scientists and other health professionals) serve in their fields, including many in Texas. Health Science Center faculty are international leaders in cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, aging, stroke prevention, kidney disease, orthopaedics, research imaging, transplant surgery, psychiatry and clinical neurosciences, pain management, genetics, nursing, dentistry and many other fields. For more information, visit www.uthscsa.edu.