Physician assistant program targets veteran medics

A year after being announced, a UNC physician assistant master’s program designed to help special forces medics transition to civilian health care is on track to welcome its first class.

The program was unveiled last December by former Chancellor Holden Thorp. Since then, newly appointed program director Prema Menezes, along with an advisory committee, has been working within the UNC School of Medicine to develop the program.

The program is scheduled to accept its first class of 15 to 20 students in August 2015. Although originally designed with veterans from special forces in mind, the program will be open to all applicants.

“We have interest not just from people who are in special operations, but from veterans who are coming out of the military with medical backgrounds, and we encourage all of them (to apply),” Menezes said.

Menezes, appointed director in August, said the application of intent filed with the UNC system was favorably received in November.

The next milestone will come in March, when the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant begins to review the program. The commission is responsible for upholding the standards for physician assistant programs throughout the country.

BlueCross BlueShield of North Carolina pledged $1.2 million to support the program when it was announced.

Dr. Bruce Cairns, director of the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center and advisory committee member for the program, said health care reform is allowing for the creation of primary care networks in underserved areas, and veterans can fill those gaps.

“Dr. (Tim) Daaleman was one of the first to say to me many years ago that military medics provide a rich opportunity to address primary care provider shortages, particularly in rural areas of North Carolina,” he said.

Cairns said the special forces medics who have spent much of their careers at Fort Bragg are ideal candidates for rural and underserved areas of the state.

“They’ve trained here; they want to stay here because this is their identity,” he said. “They want to go back and be leaders in their community.”

Daaleman, medical director of the P.A. program, said the program’s graduates will be placed in these shortage areas.

Cairns said the training military medics receive is different from what they might learn in the civilian sector, making it difficult to transition into civilian jobs.

“The problem is veterans who have medical backgrounds cannot take their training and experience, which is vast, and immediately apply it into the civilian workforce,” he said.

Dr. Nicholas True, former special forces medic and current first-year resident at UNC Hospitals, said the transition can be frustrating.

“When you try to look for a job, the best you can get is maybe an EMT basic, which is typically below the level you’ve been trained to in the military,” he said.

Catering the P.A. program to veterans will attract a strong group of candidates with diverse experiences, True said.

“Globally, it benefits the medical community to retain all these people with military medicine backgrounds.”

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