HSC offers early acceptance into PA program to eligible TAMIU students

Drs. Francisco G. Cigarroa (left) and Ray Keck sign into existence a 3+3 program that will enable students to leave Texas A&M International University after their junior year and begin the Health Science Center’s three-year physician assistant studies program.

Laredo and the Mid Rio Grande Border Region can expect to have more homegrown physician assistants (PA’s) in their midst within a few years, thanks to a new agreement signed Monday by the presidents of the Health Science Center and Texas A&M International University.

“This is an example of two major educational systems working together for the good of the state we serve,” said Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D., president of the Health Science Center.

Dr. Cigarroa and TAMIU President Ray Keck, Ph.D., hailed the “3+3” strategy that will identify students at TAMIU who are outstanding academically and interested in becoming PA’s, provide special advising and enrich their educational experience, grant early acceptance into the Health Science Center’s PA studies master’s degree program, and move them into the Health Science Center program a year before most TAMIU students receive degrees.

At the Health Science Center, the students will complete two years of rigorous classroom training based on medical school models. Arguably the key to the new agreement is the proviso that the students are to return to the border region in their third year for a clinical internship.

“We trust that this final year of on-the-job training in the region will cement the students’ desire to serve their hometowns and will familiarize them with the health care challenges that are all too common in the border region, as well as the very real rewards that come with helping improve the health of those in your own community,” Dr. Cigarroa said.

President Cigarroa was interviewed by the NBC affiliate and other news organizations in Laredo.

Dr. Keck said the agreement signals the power of collaboration between two of the state’s great university systems. “Our state leaders challenge us to collaborate and seek ways that we can work together to address the state’s needs. This new agreement between our state’s two great university systems and our campuses creates a firm foundation for a collaboration that will build to address our shared critical health concerns. We are proud to join our great friends at the Health Science Center in an initiative that can change our community and region for generations to come,” Dr. Keck said.

Dr. Cigarroa thanked Sen. Judith Zaffirini, who not only provided the leadership that established the Health Science Center’s Laredo Campus Extension initially, but who, during the regular session of the 79th Legislature, successfully secured an additional $3 million in funding for the institution’s Laredo programs. She was in Austin at the special session on Monday. The collaborative PA program will benefit from some of this funding.

Physician assistants are not doctors but are licensed to practice medicine with physician supervision. According to the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA), physician assistants may conduct physical exams, diagnose and treat illnesses, order and interpret tests, counsel on preventive health care, assist in surgery and write prescriptions in most states, including Texas.

“A lot of people have seen a physician assistant at one time or another,” said J. Dennis Blessing, Ph.D., PA-C, professor and chairman of the department of physician assistant studies at the Health Science Center. “Especially in underserved and rural areas, physician assistants are vital links in the health care chain. We don’t have enough physicians to be everywhere or see every patient. You can trust a physician assistant, working under a physician’s supervision, to make the right decisions for patients and to consult with the physician when necessary. The latter is an especially important point, and PA’s are trained to do that.”

Health care professionals are at a premium in Laredo, which is growing faster than almost any other U.S. city. A new supply of physician assistants who are committed to serving their home region will be a valuable addition to city and regional health care institutions. “This agreement is about opportunity for students from the region and, ultimately, the contribution they will make in improving the health care of their communities,” Dr. Blessing said.

Laredo native Anissa Juarez, a graduate of the Health Science Magnet program at Alexander High School and alumna of Texas A&M University at College Station, is starting her second year in the Health Science Center PA studies program. “I was doing volunteer work with the PA’s at Gateway Community Health Center in Laredo and that’s where my interest in the profession began,” Juarez said. “At A&M, I was fortunate to do an internship with the PA program at the Health Science Center. So I knew what I was getting into before I applied.

“I’m very excited to return to Laredo next year and I particularly want to return to the colonias, where they urgently need the care. Most people don’t know what it is like working with the colonias, but I experienced it prior to entering the profession. This PA program’s mission is to serve South Texas, and that’s why I chose the Health Science Center. From day one, they stress the importance and value of continuing to serve and work for South Texas.”

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