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Wichita State University’s pioneering physician assistant program helps meet health care demand

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Wichita State University’s pioneering physician assistant program helps meet health care demand

Jun 15, 2024 | 11:00 am ET
By AJ Dome
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Wichita State University’s pioneering physician assistant program helps meet health care demand
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Wichita State University students in the physician assistant masters program learn how to intubate a patient using a medical dummy. Physician assistants, or PAs, learn a wide range of skills to be able to assist doctors across Kansas and the region. (Wichita State University)

Master’s level physician assistant programs at state universities are becoming more popular as demand for health care workers and training rises across Kansas following the pandemic, says Chris Dudley, the assistant clinical professor and admissions coordinator for the physician associate program at Wichita State University.

Founded in 1972, the Wichita State program was the first in Kansas. Since then, other higher learning institutions, including Kansas State University, have modeled their own courses after the WSU program.

“There’s always demand out there,” Dudley said. “It just depends on where you want to go for your career.”

Dudley worked as a PA at an orthopedics firm in Wichita for a dozen years before joining the staff at Wichita State. He received his undergraduate degree from WSU in 2008.

“The university president, Rick Muma, was my cardiology and pulmonology instructor at the time,” Dudley said.

In an email to Kansas Reflector, Muma said a majority of Kansas counties are underserved in relation to the availability of medical providers.

“The PA profession, since its inception in the 1960s, has been an excellent solution to quickly educate and train individuals and deploy them in areas such as Kansas that experience a shortage of PAs,” Muma said.

Before Muma was named Wichita State’s 15th president in 2021, he was a provost with the university and served as chairman and professor of the public health sciences and physician associate departments. He also has served as chairman for St. Louis University’s Department of PA Education and as an assistant professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch-Galveston Department of PA Studies.

Along with Wichita State and K-State, the University of Kansas and University of Missouri-Kansas City also have master’s level physician assistant programs. Butler Community College has a pre-physician assistant program available as an entry-level course.

Students in the physician assistant program at Wichita State University practice dental hygiene techniques during an inter-professional education workshop
Students in the physician assistant program at Wichita State University practice dental hygiene techniques during an inter-professional education workshop. (Wichita State University)

Brandon Eckerman, a student in the WSU PA program, is preparing for his year of clinical rotations. His wife graduated with her master’s degree in 2022.

“President Muma sat down and had lunch with our class officers about a month ago,” Eckerman said. “We had some really good discussions with him about how things are changing and shifting.”

Eckerman said Muma pointed out that health care workers continue to be in demand following mass burnout in the profession after the COVID-19 pandemic. With Wichita State’s program being centrally located in the state, and with a 40-year track record, Eckerman said the WSU program has “good connections” to help graduates find work more easily.

Dudley said the program coursework can be strenuous.

“I tell people when I’m giving tours of the program that it’s not easy,” Dudley said. “It’s definitely the hardest thing you’re going to do. But it’s totally worth it when you’re done.”

PA courses at WSU begin in June and last 27 months. Classes are typically capped at 48 students, but Dudley said they can allow more students depending on the demand and space availability.

“It’s a tough application process,” Dudley said. “For our academic year starting next June, people are beginning to apply now.”

The application window opens in April and closes Aug. 1. So far, Dudley said, he’s received more than 800 applications. Students complete their PA courses and clinical rotations, where they travel and work with physicians in other areas, by the following summer. Dudley said PA program graduates receive their honorary white medical coats in May when other WSU colleges hold commencement ceremonies.

“When you’re a student, you wear a short white coat, and when you’re a medical professional you get a longer white coat,” Dudley said. “All of our graduates will have a job within two months of graduation. Most of them have a job lined up before graduating. Many of our PAs do stay here in Kansas and work in rural areas, but many also go back home.”

Eckerman said he will remain in Wichita after he completes his clinical rotations. His wife works as a PA in Wichita.

“A big thing with the PA profession in general is flexibility,” Eckerman said. “You don’t get shoehorned into one specific thing.”

Eckerman said he may not become an expert in one particular field of medicine, but he’ll have a “toolkit” to perform a wide range of services as a physician associate.

“It’s crazy because it’s such a short program in the grand scheme of things,” Eckerman said. “The amount of information and knowledge we get, it’s something I don’t think people appreciate all the time.”