Indiana State University Newsroom

Ceremony marks transition for physician's assistant students

January 24, 2012

When George Browne pioneered a physician's assistant practice in western Indiana in 1975, the small town doctor who hired him didn't tell his staff in advance.

"When I arrived for my first day in a shirt and tie and white coat and was greeted by the nurse and receptionist as I walked in the back door, they had not an idea that I was coming there to work," Browne told students in Indiana State University's physician's assistant studies program. "So their comment was, ‘What are you doing here? What are you going to do?'"

Much has changed in the more than 36 years since Dr. Wilbert McIntosh of Riley became the first physician in Vigo County to take on a physician's assistant. A shortage of providers now threatens the health of rural residents throughout Indiana and beyond, and Indiana State's master's program is one of several new initiatives the university has launched to help address that shortage.

Browne was keynote speaker Sunday for the program's first "white coat" ceremony marking the end of classroom and laboratory learning for 29 students and the transition to clinical rounds at up to 11 health care facilities during the next 15 months.

"It is time to put on your white coat and let those around you know that you're going to be a member of the team," Browne said. "Always be well-prepared. Don't hesitate to ask questions and have resources available to you at all times to help solve any problems you may encounter. Always, always, always be an attentive listener and persevere. What an honor it is to be part of a profession that is transforming health care throughout America and the world."

Richard "Biff" Williams, dean of the ISU College of Nursing, Health, and Human Services told the students, family members and friends that university leaders believe they are going to have the best program of its kind in the nation.

Williams said that ambitious goal is achievable because ISU physician's assistant students learn alongside future nurses, athletic trainers, dieticians, community health educators, social workers and others to learn the full scope of the kind of health care delivery needed to meet the needs of an aging population.

"We are focused on inter-professional education. We teach several different disciplines together where they can learn from each other learn about each other and partner together," he said. "We believe inter-professional education will be the key to making this one of the nation's best program. Our expectation is for our students to become the very best."

Matthew Thimling of Jasper received the program's "Future of Professionalism" award in recognition of leadership, professionalism, clinical skills, compassion and academic standing. His fellow students selected him for the inaugural award.

"We have such a great class, it could have been anybody," Thimling said. "To be the guy that everybody picked is a great feeling. To walk out of here and know that your peers like you and ... everybody respects each other is great."

Thimling plans to return to his southern Indiana roots to serve in a rural area where health care shortages are especially severe. He said the timing of ISU's year-old program was just right, coming as he finished a bachelor's degree in biology at Kentucky Wesleyan University in 2010.

"Before I knew it, ISU offered this rural emphasis program. It was close to home, affordable and a great school so I went for it," Thimling said.

The president of the ISU physician's assistant studies class of 2013, Rhiannon Barnhart of Mount Vernon, said while the white coat ceremony marks progress for the students, it also means they will no longer be working and studying as closely together as they have for the past year.

"Most of us will be taking several paths and moving away from each other," she said.

All students in the program will serve clinical rotations in such core areas as emergency medicine, women's health, surgery, family medicine, geriatrics and behavioral medicine. Electives include dermatology, cardiology and oncology.

Barnhart began shadowing a doctor as a pre-medicine student at the University of Southern Indiana when the busy physician suggested she spend time shadowing his assistant.

"I didn't even know he had an assistant, but that was the best day of my life," she said. "I did all of the same things that I wanted to do ... and took some of the workload from the doctor and gave it back to the patients."

Barnhart chose Indiana State's physician's assistant program because of its proximity to her family in southwestern Indiana.

"Going to school and starting a physician's assistant program, I knew I would need a support system and staying close to family was that support system for me," she said.

She will be returning to Evansville for her first two clinical rounds in surgery and in family practice with Amber Lutz of Evansville, the same physician's assistant she shadowed while in pre-med. Lutz works with Dr. Rick Crawford.

George Browne, the physician's assistant pioneer, said he was excited, yet apprehensive, on that day in 1975 when he surprised Dr. McIntosh's nurse and receptionist. He soon realized he had made the right decision, he said, especially upon discovering that what was then a new profession provided him an opportunity to not only treat patients' illnesses but to work with them on preventive care.

"I started making rounds and even house calls. I was loving every minute of it and found my responsibilities expanding," he said. "It didn't take long for me to realize that I was doing things that physicians either didn't take time to do or didn't have time to do, and that was to build a relationship so you could talk out a lot of things."

Browne began to focus on rural health care 10 years ago when he joined the Clay City Center for Rural Health. He still sees patients ranging from newborns who are just a few days old to those who've lived for more than a century and, yes, he still makes house calls - at least for his 100-year-old patients.

"I'm trying to express to you what a joy it is to build these relationships with folks and to know that when you see them in the community ... you have influenced their lives not only from a medical standpoint but from the mental, emotional and spiritual aspect," he told the young men and women planning to follow in his footsteps.

Browne urged those seeking to follow in his footsteps to stay close to home.

"Your opportunities are unlimited in almost every field of medicine here in Indiana," he said. "My congratulations to all of you, your families and your faculty. Keep up the good work and remember you're going to have one of the best jobs in America."

Photo: - Rhiannon Barnhart of Evansville, president of Indiana State University's physician assistant studies class of 2013, receives her white coat during a Jan. 22, 2012 ceremony marking the transition from the classroom and laboratory portion of the program to the clinical phase. (ISU/Rachel Keyes)
Photo: - George Brown, a physician's assistant at the Clay City Center for Rural Medicine, was keynote speaker Jan. 22, 2012 during a white coat ceremony for students in Indiana State University's master's program in physician assistant studies. (ISU/Rachel Keyes)
Photo: - Matthew Timling of Jasper (right) poses with Leamor Kahanov, chair of the department of applied medicine and rehabilitation at Indiana State University. Thimling received the "Future of Professionalism" award from his fellow students in the university's master's degree program in physician's assistant studies. (ISU/Rachel Keyes)

Contact: Heather Mata, associate professor and director, physicia's 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

Students in the first class of ISU's master's degree program in physician's assistant studies received their white coats in a ceremony significying their transition from classroom and laboratory learning to clinical rounds.

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