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Health Team

Physicians assistants becoming backbone of primary care

Posted May 19, 2010 5:30 p.m. EDT
Updated May 19, 2010 6:30 p.m. EDT

— There's already a shortage of primary care physicians in the country. Now with health care reform, the demand will grow even greater.

More doctors are turning to physician assistants to handle many of their patients' needs. Rather than the more extensive four-plus years of medical school, physician assistants train for a little more than two years in a masters program.

Methodist University in Fayetteville is one of those programs focused on serving rural communities. Physician assistant students at Methodist get a taste of all the medical specialties, but the 27-month masters program stresses experience in primary care.

“One of the unfortunate things for us as a country is that we are not meeting the primary care health needs of the nation as a whole,” said Dr. Sekhar Kommu, director of Methodist’s physician assistant program.

Kommu said he believes physician assistants will be the backbone of primary care. That's how the program in Fayetteville was born 14 years ago – with a mission to send graduates to under-served areas of the state.

“(We) literally teach students to be able to pick up the primary care needs of a rural community with a supervising physician,” Kommu said.

It's a small program compared to others in the state, but it's well equipped and strongly supported by the local medical community.

“Most of us came from other states or other areas of the state, so we really rely on ourselves, we're our own family,” said student Jacqueline Gobein.

The physicians assistants program has about 34 students. With the doubling of the space, they hope to attract up to 46 students within the next three to four years.>

“There's certainly a need and we're having the interest. We're getting close to 400 applications a year from really good students,” said Methodist University President M. Elton Hendricks.