In 1969, Utah first approved the development of a physician assistant training program, and ever since the University of Utah Physician Assistant Program (UPAP) in the Division of Physician Assistant Studies has been committed to their mission “to improve the quality of health and access to care, with a commitment to the medically underserved.” Today it does this work “by educating students to become highly proficient, socially conscious, and accountable physician assistants…”
Born out of the MEDEX model, UPAP is the oldest continuously accredited PA program in the western United States. UPAP has been a leader in physician assistant studies programs across the nation—ranking in the top 10 programs by US News & World Report since 2004. Chief of the Division for PA Studies, Leigh Elrod, DPAS, MPAS, PA-C, said that from the beginning of the profession and the program, diversity and inclusion has been at its core. The inaugural Don Pedersen Endowed Chair and Medical Director of South Main Clinic noted that this includes a continuing commitment to military veterans and dedicated service to those who are medically underserved.
This commitment has led to student cohorts that are more representative of the communities in which they live and serve. To facilitate this representative diversity, the PA program has been using a holistic admissions process before the term even became popular. Co-Directors of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion for UPAP, Darin Ryujin, MS, MPAS, PA-C, and Menerva Lobe, MPAS, PA-C, explained how this element of the program has created a place for students of all backgrounds to thrive and be successful. They also note that our communities have gained the most as a result, because they end up with more providers who exhibit empathy and cultural humility. The success can also be seen in the numerous awards that the program and its graduates have received. Some of the most recent accolades include the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA) 2022 Humanitarian of the Year, the 2021 Publishing Award, and the 2021 Physician Assistant Educator Association (PAEA) Excellence Through Diversity Award.
A variety of opportunities to serve the mission and vision of the Program and Division are available to students and faculty alike, include three student-run clinics—the Maliheh Free Clinic, Doctors Volunteer Clinic, and a clinic with the Urban Indian Center. The PA program also makes physicals available to migrant farm workers during harvest, setting up mobile units so patients can receive care without having to miss work to receive medical services. Additionally, each year 44 of the 68 PA program students do rotations at the U of U Health interprofessional South Main Clinic. This opportunity gives students another chance to serve the marginalized populations that use the South Main site, many of whom are uninsured and speak Spanish as their primary language.
Nationally, PAs practice in primary care settings 24.4% of the time. However, 46.2% of UPAP graduates over the past 5 years have self-reported that they work in primary care. Not only that, but 30.66% of the PAs who have graduated from U of U in the last five years have gone on to practice in underserved settings, whereas the national rate is a much lower 5.1%. With the opening of the St. George campus in 2018, UPAP also supports the development of a PA workforce in rural and Southern Utah where 44% of recent graduates are now working.
With a growing shortage of primary care providers across the state and nation, the University of Utah Physician Assistant Program is working diligently and effectively to meet the needs of patients from all backgrounds and identities now and for the future. To learn more about the Division of Physician Assistant Studies, please visit the program's webpage.
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