University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio offering first year of physician assistant course in Laredo

San Antonio (Aug. 6, 2007) – For the first time, The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio is offering the first year of its three-year physician’s assistant (P.A.) program in Laredo, in addition to the main campus in San Antonio. The first group of students will begin studies in Laredo this fall.

This means that students from South Texas who find it difficult to go to school for two years in San Antonio ― as well as any prospective P.A. students who would like to experience deep South Texas culture first-hand ― can apply to attend their first year in Laredo.

Physician assistants diagnose, treat and teach patients about good health practices with a physician’s supervision. And students from across Texas, including former Laredo biology teacher and volleyball coach Irene Moreno, are entering the profession. In her third year of the program, Moreno is working in Laredo and other South Texas clinics to determine her future specialty ― family practice, pediatrics, surgery, obstetrics/gynecology, emergency medicine or research.
While students will take classes their first year in either San Antonio or Laredo, all students must attend classes the second year on the main campus in San Antonio, due to the course content. Third-year students, like Moreno, however, will receive clinical training at locations throughout South Texas, including Laredo, the Lower Rio Grande Valley and as far north as Austin.

“While taking the first year of classes in Laredo will be an option for all the students who apply to the Health Science Center P.A. program, the hope is, that through the application process we will get some potential students who, for whatever reason, would like to attend class in Laredo their first year. The selection process will be the same, but six students will be assigned to Laredo,” explained Dennis Blessing, Ph.D., P.A.-C., professor and chair of the physician assistant program and associate dean for South Texas programs.

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Some of the classes will be taught on site by Health Science Center faculty while others will be conducted via videoconference. “If we can recruit and train from South Texas, we hope that some of our graduates will stay in that area,” Blessing said.

The application deadline for next year’s program is Oct. 1.
Serving South Texas, a medically underserved area, is the core mission of the P.A. program. Begun as a collaborative program with the Army to educate and train physician assistants, the Health Science Center benefited from special legislation in 1994 that allowed a limited number of civilians to fill vacancies in the military classes. The purpose of that pilot program was to see if the graduates would help fill a void of health care providers in South Texas. In 2000, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board authorized the Health Science Center to offer a civilian-based P.A. program. The current three-year master’s degree program was approved in 2003, the same year the program made its debut on the US News & World Report America’s Best Graduate Schools list. The program continues to be listed among the top 20 programs in the country in the most recent report.

The commitment to South Texas is one of the reasons Irene Moreno applied to and was accepted into the program three years ago. “I’ve always been interested in going into the health profession,” said Moreno, a former high school volleyball standout and teacher in Laredo. “I started looking into it and came across the Health Science Center Web site. Then I heard Dr. Cigarroa (Health Science Center president and Laredo native) speak about leadership at a Chamber of Commerce program in Austin where he was being honored. I thought that this would be a good thing to get into,” said the mother of two.

“It is very competitive. I had to get all my course prerequisites in order,” she said. “When I came for my interview, I told them that I felt that being a P.A. would be a natural extension of my life as a teacher. As a teacher and coach, I had an impact on the lives of individuals by teaching them to be successful, productive citizens. As a P.A., the teaching and coaching will be about prevention and teaching patients to lead healthier lives.”

Although Moreno entered the P.A. program after earning her bachelor’s degree in biology, some students enter the program as undergraduates. To be eligible, students must meet certain requirements, including 90 hours of prerequisite college courses. “It is a rigorous program,” Moreno said. “It is constantly challenging. You need to enjoy reading and research because it is a non-stop learning process. What I enjoy most is the small class size with very knowledgeable and professional faculty who constantly challenge us. The faculty really believes in the students.”

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“For me, the biggest reward is having a positive impact on someone’s life. I like to see the satisfaction in the people’s faces and know that I did the right thing for them and they are living a more fruitful life,” Moreno said.
“My long-term goal is return to practice in Laredo and to be an asset to the community. I’ll also continue to contribute through volunteerism, like talking to schools about the profession,” she said. “And I’ll still hang out at the gym working with girls on their volleyball when I have time,” she said.

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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 $536 million, the Health Science Center is the chief catalyst for the $14.3 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 22,000 graduates (physicians, dentists, nurses, scientists and allied 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, allied health, dentistry and many other fields.

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