By Lois Thomson

South University had been seeking to expand the programming at its West Palm Beach campus for the past few years, and after much consideration, two new offerings are currently in place. The initial curriculum chosen was a Physician Assistant studies program, and the second was an Anesthesiologist Assistant (AA) program.

Robin Schugar, DHSc, PA- C

Robin Schugar, DHSc, PA-C, is program director for the Physician Assistant (PA) program, and she said, “The university is very particular about conducting extensive research in the areas where they decide to expand the programs; they see what the needs are to be sure the program can be successful and contribute in a positive way in the health care field.” Dr. Thomas Nguyen, Dean of Academic Affairs and Retention, agreed that both the PA and AA programs were in high demand and would benefit the health care sector.

Dr. Schugar said U.S. News & World Report ranks physician assistant as the number one job for 2021, adding that because of the physician shortage, physician assistants are one of the top job opportunities to help spread coverage for the lack of physicians in the community. “PAs are one of the alternate professions that help satisfy some of that need, so we try to make sure our students are very well educated in a well-rounded curriculum, and that they get as much experience as they can. Usually they’re able to do quite well, they really excel.”

The PA class began in January 2021 and the AA followed in September, and both programs have proved to be good additions to the university. Dr. Schugar said the PA field is very competitive, and as a brand new program, it received more than 1,500 applications for the initial 40 cohort spaces. She said the program increased the class size to 50 the second year, and for accrediting purposes it must remain at that size for several years; but the number of applications increased to 2,200 for those 50 spots.

Dr. Nguyen added that “the students from that class are from all over the United States. It’s a very sought after field of study.”

Dr. Thomas Nguyen, Dean of Academic Affairs and Retention

One reason, according to Dr. Schugar, is that the field offers numerous opportunities. “Unlike nurse practitioners, physician assistants get trained in all disciplines of medicine – emergency, women’s health, pediatric – and they do their clinical experiences in all those areas. So they’re well-rounded and are able to fit in almost anywhere.”

The PA program runs for 27 months, while the AA program is 29 months. The length is necessary because of the heavy clinical experience required by the accrediting body. Additionally, all students are required to go to campus for their studies and their labs, which will be done face-to-face.

Jeff Carroll, program director for the AA program, said, “Our accrediting body requires 2,000 clinical hours in their training. With our previous numbers at South University, we’re well over 2,500.” The number of hours required is one reason for the nine-quarter format.

Carroll also pointed out that the AA program has an affiliation with the University of Florida’s College of Medicine in the Department of Anesthesiology. “Their program is one of the best in the country, with all of the resources they have, so we partner with them to use those resources for our anesthesiology training. We’re very proud to have that type of resource.”

Before finalizing the new programs, advice was sought from PACs – program advisory committees – that are made up of area professionals, both clinical and faculty. Dr. Schugar said, “We meet with the PACs about every other quarter, especially now while we’re growing the program, because we want to get input on certain things about the curriculum – what’s necessary, or if there are any deficits that we need to correct.”

Dr. Nguyen said, “One of the strong points of the programs is we partner with community health care providers, and one sign of a quality PA program is to have strong clinical affiliations to give our students hands-on training that’s essential from quality hospitals and clinics.”

Dr. Ilaria Gadalla, Physician Assistant Department Chair and Interim Assistant Dean for the College of Health Professions, and Dr. Jeffrey Bishop, medical director for the PA program, are well-known practicing physicians from the community, and Dr. Schugar said, “Because of them and their connections, we have been able to secure more than adequate clinical rotation for our students, which is something most programs are really struggling to do right now.” Dr. Nguyen added, “Our students are very privileged to have them involved in our curriculum design and construction, and to receive training from seasoned PAs and physicians.”

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