U Prepares to Offer Physician Assistant Program in Southern Utah

Each year, working as a physician assistant becomes a more popular career option. To increase Utah’s programs, the U is partnering with Dixie State University to offer a physician assistant (PA) program in southern Utah.

Classes begin at the satellite campus in St. George in May of 2018, said John Houchins, chief of the division of physician assistant studies.

The program at Dixie State University is expected to accept 15 students the first year and more annually. The U’s PA program, which has been around for 46 years, enrolls 44 to 48 students each year. It’s one of two in the state, and the other, the Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions in Provo, began only this year.

For 15 years, the number of programs sat at about 120 nationwide. In the past five years, that number has increased to over 200.

Houchins said despite high demand, they are taking their time to create a high-quality program, which is why the first class will not start for a couple years.

“It’s really important that we do this right,” he said. “It’s fairly easy to put together a training program haphazardly, but a low-quality program doesn’t serve anyone well.”

Funding is coming from Dixie State University and the state legislature. It will coincide with the U’s program in regards to the application process, courses and the cost, which is $40,000-$50,000 annually, said Karen Mulitalo, program director for the division of physician assistant studies.

According to the U.S. News and World Report, the U’s PA program is ranked fifth in the country. The university will hire professors to teach at Dixie’s Russell C. Taylor Health Science Building, which is already equipped with offices and classrooms to serve the program.

PAs practice medicine under physicians and surgeons and the program requires clinical experience. The U and Dixie State University will work closely with the Dixie Regional Medical Center and other health care providers in the area.

Houchins hopes the addition will encourage more students to stay and work in-state. Due to the lack of a program in southern Utah, most students have had to find alternatives in surrounding areas, such as Arizona and Nevada. Houchins also thinks the initiative will benefit under-served rural communities in southern Utah.

Houchins attributes the increased need for PAs to the Affordable Care Act. More access to health care means more people are looking for a primary care provider.

“The difference makes the PA workforce a lot more responsive to changing needs in the medical workforce. That’s why PA schools are exploding,” Houchins said.

There are certainly enough students in the state to fill the needs. BYU has more graduating pre-PA students than any other university in the country. Now, those students have one more option for schooling.

“It’s providing a real acute and severe need for health and medical assistance for the southern part of the state,” Houchins said. “It’s our goal to provide quality healthcare to the entire state and improve the quality of life for everyone.”

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