First physician assistant program class prepares to begin new jobs caring for Hoosiers

August 6, 2015

Thirty-seven students at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis are making history again.

Twenty-seven months ago, they were members of the first class of students to begin the Master of Physician Assistant Studies program in the IU School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.Physician assistant program charter class patch

They will record another first on Friday when they complete the program, created to help fill the need for health care practitioners, particularly for medically underserved populations and Hoosiers living in rural areas.

“Most of the students already have jobs lined up in various areas of medicine, including surgery, primary care and emergency departments,” said Rebecca Rebman, a physician assistant and director of the physician assistant program. "Some have applied for physician assistant residencies to gain additional education needed to practice in a specialized area.

“Physician assistants are advanced practice providers whose training is modeled after medical students,” she said. They study primary care as well as specialties.

“They are dependent practitioners who work in a collaborative arrangement with a supervising physician, but physician assistants also have a lot of autonomy,” Rebman said. They can see patients on their own, consulting with a physician as needed.

“They are able to assess patients, order diagnostic tests and then develop a treatment plan and write prescriptions,” Rebman said.

During the 27-month program, students take 111 credit hours, compared to the 128 credit hours taken by a typical undergraduate student over four years.

“It’s a demanding program,” Rebman said. “It’s like sprinting through a marathon.”

After finishing the program, Angela Miedema will begin working with cardiovascular surgeons and patients at Ball Memorial Hospital in Muncie.

During the past two years, the former emergency medical technician and laboratory assistant wasn’t always certain she would be among the first class of students to graduate

“They said it was going to be like drinking out of a fire hose. I kind of laughed and thought they must be talking about someone else, not me. I’m a good student and I thought I could handle it,” she said. “Honestly, I’m really proud that my family and I made it through. There were times I thought it was too much,” she added, crediting her family with providing the encouragement she needed to keep going.

“A lot of people describe the program as putting your mouth on a firehose and turning it on,” said Barry Wertz, a former radiology technologist at Methodist Hospital who will be working at an orthopedics center in Fort Wayne, focusing on spinal care. “It is like that, but I kind of enjoyed it. The information is not necessarily hard to learn, but the volume is extremely intense.”

Rebman said the students have done well in their classes and clinical rotations. More importantly, she said, the program’s health partners -- which are among the health organizations hiring the students -- feel the same way.

Now a lecturer and academic coordinator in the physician assistant program, Sarah Eli had her first encounter with the students while working as a physician assistant in the Indiana University Health West Hospital emergency department.

She said the emergency department staff was a little nervous when the first student arrived for a clinical rotation. “We hadn’t had a physician assistant student before, and we had no idea of what their preparation might be.”

“The first (IU) student just blew our socks off,” Eli said. “He was great. He knew his content, he was enthusiastic, and he was willing to do everything.