“Trusted for 50 years, Ready for 50 more,” is the tagline for the American Academy of PAs as the organization celebrates the golden anniversary of the physician assistant profession.

Having graduated its first class in 2010, Wingate’s Harris Department of Physician Assistant Studies doesn’t have a lengthy history, but it’s ready to share its present success and future plans with North Carolina legislators. Representatives of the North Carolina Academy of Physician Assistants (NCAPA) will accompany Tar Heel lawmakers to Wingate today and to Hendersonville on Oct. 16. The visits fall on either side of PA Week, Oct. 6-12.

Rosalind Becker, PA studies director, says guests will find a rigorous academic program, dedicated faculty and plentiful and varied clinical rotations in which students can put their knowledge to work.

“Our faculty is very invested in our students’ education. We want to see them succeed and be the best PAs they can be,” she said. “We have wonderful clinical preceptors in the greater Charlotte area, who are familiar with our students over time, and they report to us that our students are well-trained.”

Wingate’s graduates pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam at rates higher than the national average, with 100 percent of students passing on their first attempt last year, compared to 96 percent nationally. Over the last five years, Wingate’s pass rate has averaged 98 percent.

Beginning with 20 students in its first class, the program has more than doubled over the past decade and now accepts 40 at the Wingate campus and 10 in Hendersonville, where students study at the state-of-the-art Health Sciences Center opened in 2016. Overall, the program has graduated 226 students in six classes.

Becker said about 40 percent of Wingate’s PA grads practice in the greater Charlotte area and that the program offers clinical opportunities in rural, suburban and urban settings.

In the Charlotte area, students complete rotations in both the Carolinas Healthcare and Novant systems. In Hendersonville, they get experience working with Pardee Hospital and Blue Ridge Community Health. Students in both locations also work with their local health departments. And those in Wingate have a growing role at a clinic operated by Community Health Services of Union County.

Becker said that each summer administrators assess the program and implement changes based on feedback from graduates and on healthcare industry trends.

“We added an EKG and Radiology course in the didactic year to better prepare students,” Becker said. “We’ve also discontinued genetics as a class and instead have implemented the study of genomics throughout the curriculum.”

As for being ready for the next half century, Becker believes the future is bright for the PA profession and the WU program.

She said Wingate is working on plans to double its PA enrollment  in Hendersonville and is exploring ways to better help people in rural, medically underserved areas. According to the Mountain Area Health Education Center, about one in five North Carolinians, or 2.2 million people, live in a rural county and are therefore less likely to have access to health care services.

Lawmakers visit Wingate’s PA program on Oct. 2.

The visits from lawmakers to Wingate’s PA program are one way the NCAPA is laying groundwork for future legislation that could broaden the role of PAs. Nationwide, PA organizations are looking to eliminate laws that mandate them to have a specific relationship with a physician in order to practice. They would also like to see more PAs on regulatory boards and PAs authorized for direct reimbursement from all insurers.

Becker said there is no PA-related legislation pending in North Carolina at this time, but that it is always great to see lawmakers learning more about the profession and about how PAs are trained.

Oct. 2, 2017