Alaska's first class of physician assistants graduates Aug. 18

By: Staff   Aug 15, 2011

UAA graduates its first class of physicians assistant Aug. 18

Twelve of the 15 are Alaskans; all but one intend to work in Alaska

A cohort of 15 UAA physician assistant students—“Class 1”—will celebrate the completion of their studies on Thursday, Aug. 18, at 2:30 p.m. at the Wendy Williamson Auditorium.

PAs are not doctors, but are licensed health care professionals that practice medicine with physician supervision. They conduct physical exams, diagnose and treat illnesses, order and interpret tests, counsel on preventive health care, assist in surgery and can write prescriptions in all 50 states.

The need for PAs continues to grow across Alaska due in part to a lack of primary care physicians and surgeons in rural communities. Class 1 will blaze new trails in a state that is dealing with not only a physician shortage, but also health access issues in remote areas that are off Alaska’s road system.

In many cases, a PA may be the only health care provider for hundreds of miles. For this reason, Alaska’s PA students take a veterinary medicine workshop so they are able to provide care to ill or injured animals when no other medical options are available. Oftentimes PAs work autonomously in remote locations but have 24/7 access to their collaborative physician by phone, in addition to monthly site visits.

On Thursday, Aug. 18, Class 1 will be awarded Physician Assistant Certificates from the UW School of Medicine. Graduates are also eligible to earn Bachelor of Science in Health Sciences degrees from UAA. Upon the successful completion of the program, graduates are eligible to sit for the National Certifying Exam for Physician Assistants.

Twelve of the 15 students are Alaskans, and all but one of the 15 graduates intend to stay in Alaska to seek employment. “There is very strong data that shows that where physician assistant students do their clinical rotations is where they stay,” said John Riley, MEDEX program coordinator. “We have a class of self-selected pioneers who signed up to be in the first Anchorage PA class. I hope they will become advocates in their communities for improving health care. I believe they will be instrumental in improving access to health care for Alaskans.”

The group is Alaska’s first graduating class through the MEDEX Northwest Physician Assistant (PA) Program, a collaborative partnership between the University of Washington (UW) School of Medicine and the University of Alaska Anchorage. The program’s flagship site is in Seattle with locations in Spokane, Yakima and, most recently, Anchorage.

Students spend six weeks in Seattle to kick off their studies, but the rest of their coursework and clinical experience takes place in Alaska. In their junior year, students are immersed in intense clinical and didactic instruction. Their senior year is spent gaining valuable clinical experience at training sites primarily in Alaska.

UAA Chancellor Tom Case and U.S. Senator Mark Begich are among the dignitaries who will attend the graduation ceremony to congratulate Alaska’s first class of physician assistants. Other speakers include Thomas Nighswander, M.D., Assistant Regional Dean, WWAMI School of Medical Education; Ruth Ballweg, PA-C, MPA, Division Chief, MEDEX UW PA Program; and Cheryl Easley, Dean, UAA College of Health.

Learn more about the MEDEX Northwest PA Program at this link.

Read Class 1’s Heather Burnell’s I AM UAA story at this link.

For more information about the MEDEX Northwest PA Program or the graduation ceremony, contact John Riley, MEDEX Program Coordinator, at (907) 786-6570 or