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Physician assistant studies program launches in College of Nursing, Health, and Human Services

February 16, 2011

Master's level course is one of many in works to address health care shortage

A master's degree program in physician assistant studies is Indiana State University's latest effort to address the growing demand for health care professionals at the same time much of the state continues to experience a shortage of skilled providers.

The program launched in January with Dr. Randy Stevens, a practicing physician who was one of the nation's first physician assistants, serving as its medical director.

With physicians in short supply, many small towns are served largely by nurse practitioners and physician assistants, and new federal health care legislation will only increase the demand for services, said Stevens, former director of family medicine at Union Hospital and currently director of the hospital's Center for Occupational Health.

"By 2014, 30 million more people are going to access health care that previously did not," said Stevens. "That's going to pose a real dilemma for the medical community because the providers, particularly physicians, are in short supply."

Physician assistants are licensed to practice medicine under the supervision of a physician.

Heather Mata, program director for physician assistant studies, said most students in the first class "seem quite interested in rural health care. That's where we will focus our rotations and shadowing to make sure that's where the students stay when they complete their degrees."

The program will expose students early to real-world experiences and focus on education and practice with students and providers from other disciplines, said Mata, associate professor of applied medicine and rehabilitation.

"Get your hands dirty from day one," she said, noting that students will begin shadowing providers in a variety of specialties beginning this month, "so that when they order a cardiac catheterization or colonoscopy, for example, they will understand what they are ordering and what sort of preparations are required."

Beginning in the second semester of the seven-semester program, students will be mentored by current health care providers in preparation for clinical experience in the second year.

The program stresses inter-professional education, in which students from a variety of health-related fields learn together.

"[It's]something not a lot of schools are doing right now," Mata said, "but the approach should serve ISU graduates well, especially those who will be working in rural areas where specialists are few and further between."

As a 1977 graduate of the first physician assistant program in the country at Duke University, Dr. Stevens said it is a natural evolution for him to serve as the new ISU program's first medical director.

"It's an exciting moment in time. My vision for the Indiana State program is that it will be a program of excellence for the area," he said.

Stevens served as a medic during the Vietnam War. Upon his release from the military, he enrolled at Indiana State, but transferred to Duke when it launched its physician assistant studies program.

"They were looking for well-trained medics to come back and have something to fit into in the civilian world," Stevens said.

After working as a physician assistant for 10 years, he entered the Indiana University School of Medicine to become a doctor. He served his residency in Union Hospital's family medicine program and was involved for many years with the Clay City Center for Family Medicine.

Today's students have much different reasons for becoming physician assistants than did Stevens.

Matt Becker of Evansville holds a bachelor's degree in business administration from Washington University in St. Louis, but "after a couple of years in corporate business, I decided sitting behind a desk is not what I wanted to do," he said.

Becker was in the pre-medicine program at Washington and has worked as a firefighter and EMT. Patient care is his true calling, he said.

The program's approach, focusing on rural health and inter-disciplinary practice, together with the proximity of the ISU campus to his hometown and in-state tuition, attracted Becker to ISU.

"It's a good fit. I really like the faculty and staff and feel the program is headed in the right direction," he said. "I thought it would be a great chance to have a personal stake in the new program."

The master's level program in physician assistant studies is the second of three new programs the Indiana Commission for Higher Education has approved for ISU's College of Nursing, Health, and Human Services.

A doctor of nursing practice program launched last fall and currently serves 19 students - all working professionals who are taking advantage of the program's online format to complete an advanced degree on a schedule that provides greater flexibility in juggling classes, work and family demands. A doctor of physical therapy program is still in the development stages at Indiana State and university officials plan to seek state approval later this year for four additional programs: an accelerated nursing degree for persons who already have a baccalaureate in another degree, a master's of social work, a master's degree in occupational therapy and a Ph.D. in health sciences.

Photos: - Ginna Kauffman of Boston (left) and Brianne Randall of Chicago (right), students in Indiana State University's master's program in physician assistant studies, acquaint themselves with new medical equipment under the guidance of Barbara Battista, the program's clinical coordinator. (ISU/Kara Berchem) - Abby Bunstine of Chillicothe, Ohio performs an ear exam on Travis James of Greenup, Ill. Both are master's students in Indiana State University's new physician assistant studies program. (ISU/Kara Berchem)

Contact: Heather Mata, associate professor and director, physician assistant studies program, department of applied medicine and rehabilitation, College of Nursing, Health, and Human Services, Indiana State University, 812-237-8874 or

Writer: Dave Taylor, media relations director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3743 or



Story Highlights

A master's degree program in physician assistant studies is Indiana State University's latest effort to address the growing demand for health care professionals at the same time much of the state continues to experience a shortage of skilled providers.

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