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Release:  Oct. 19, 1999

UI PA program celebrates 25 years of graduates with reception

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- In the 25 years since the University of Iowa Physician Assistant (PA) Program graduated its first 10 PAs, the profession has seen a national growth of hundreds of thousands of graduates, and the UI program has established a tradition of academic excellence.

A 25th anniversary reception for the university’s PA program will be Oct. 25 and will offer an opportunity for all prior graduates to reunite with their classmates. The reception will be held at the Collins Plaza Hotel in Cedar Rapids from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m.

The reception also offers an opportunity to look back at the success and growth of the Iowa PA program. Established in 1972, the first PA class graduated in 1974. More than 500 PAs have graduated from the UI since.

The first PA program was created at Duke University in 1965 as a response to the shortage and uneven distribution of physicians in the early 1960s. The first students were trained to serve patients under another doctor’s supervision, particularly in underserved areas.

David Asprey, a graduate of the university’s PA program and currently its director, noted an evolution of the role of PAs over the years.

"At first, PAs were designed to have less autonomy. Now their role has expanded to include diagnosing and treating patients. In some areas, the PA is the only health care practitioner on site," he said.

PAs today assist doctors in a number of tasks, including taking medical histories, examining patients, ordering and interpreting lab tests, setting fractures and suturing wounds, conducting hospital rounds and house calls, assisting in surgery, and initiating treatment plans. They are usually the first person to see the patient and in most states, including Iowa, they can also write prescriptions.

Nationwide there has been an explosion of PA programs over the years. By 1971, 17 programs had been established in the country, graduating 430 PAs a year. In the last decade the growth has been more pronounced -- in 1992, 55 programs graduated 1,600 students per year. By 1998 the numbers nearly doubled, with 106 national programs and 4,000 PAs graduating per year.

The Iowa program began in 1972 with 10 students and a focus on serving rural areas. Asprey said this focus fit with national PA goals.

"It has always been the interest of PAs to work in areas that are underserved. This could be inner-city areas or, in Iowa’s case, rural areas. The PA program at the UI wants to make sure that all citizens of the state have high-quality health care. In areas financially unable to serve a physician, a PA is often the answer," he said.

Since the first class graduated in 1974, the UI program has set a distinct pattern of academic success. The rate of students passing the PA National Certification Exam the first time they take the test averages 99 percent while the national average is around 85 percent. The figures are merely one measure of the excellence exhibited by students and graduates, Asprey said.

"The Iowa program is fortunate and unique in that the curriculum is heavily integrated with the College of Medicine. Most of the first-year classes are taken with second-year medical students, something most programs around the country don’t do. This sets up an intense curriculum which expects the students to perform and prepares them well. Also, we are fortunate to attract top-notch individuals across the country as students," he said.

The growth in PA programs and students across the country reflects a demand in today’s health care system, Asprey said, a demand to provide health care to more areas and to provide it in a cost-effective manner.

"The key idea about PAs is that they are health care providers that deliver patient services similar to a physician, at a reduced cost," Asprey said. "In today’s health care market, quality care at reduced cost is highly valued."

As the program looks back with the upcoming reunion, it also pushes ahead with more students and new goals. Part of this is the Rural Medicine Initiative, instituted in 1995, that seeks to recruit students with rural backgrounds to better serve those areas.