The PA profession is projected to grow 30% between 2014 and 2024 (significantly faster than the average field) in response to the increasing need for medical providers. PA educators are responding by incrementally increasing class sizes and by developing new programs.
In the past year, 17 new PA programs have been accredited, helping to fulfill the need for training PAs and providing more opportunities for prospective PA students.
Recently, I had the pleasure of diving into the details of one of the newest PA programs at Hardin-Simmons University with the PA program director, Dr. Jennifer Eames.
Here's what you should know about the program.
The Hardin-Simmons PA program is located in Abilene, Texas and accepts applications from the start of a new CASPA cycle in April through December 1. Interviews are conducted July through December.
There is no expiration date on course work. Let me repeat, there is no expiration date on coursework. Any prerequisites you have taken in the history of time will count towards your academic requirements. This exception is not common and is a huge gift to those of you who decided to become a PA long after college graduation.
The other admissions requirements are fairly standard: minimum overall GPA of 3.0, minimum science GPA of 3.0, and GRE is required. Health care experience is recommended but not required. Because Hardin-Simmons is a private university, there is no preference for in-state residents.
The program starts in August and lasts 27 months, ending in December. The tuition cost for the length of the program is currently about $68,000.
Jennifer Eames, MPAS, DHSc, PA-C, is an Associate Professor and Program Director of the PA Program at Hardin-Simmons University. She has worked full-time developing the program since 2015. Previously, Dr. Eames was a faculty member and Admissions Director for the PA program at the University of Texas Medical Branch and has practiced clinically for 14 years in gastroenterology, family medicine, and infectious disease.
What is the Hardin-Simmons PA Program looking for in an ideal applicant?
We just want a really well-rounded applicant. We want to see not only academic achievement but someone with a big heart too. Someone who can show that they can put their commitment into humanity and into action.
It's not just about the 4.0, it's not just about the perfect scores on tests, which are important to be able to achieve in PA school, but we really like to see well-rounded candidates. Someone will leadership, someone with service, someone with volunteerism, someone with experience - all of those things coming together make the ideal candidate.
What kind of hands on experience catches your eye?
So I think a variety of experiences is valuable. Obviously, direct patient contact is always looked upon favorably. But I find that a lot of applicants who have been scribes tend to have a great look, kind of "through the looking glass," at what it looks like to be a provider with patient contact. Even though they're not doing or performing the care themselves, they've seen the decision-making process that PAs go through in making a differential diagnosis, ordering tests, getting results, delivering those results. So there's there's a more direct view of what it looks like on a day-to-day basis to care for a patient. And that’s the hardest thing for us to teach — how to think like a PA.
I wouldn’t say we favor students who are scribes, but it’s a good experience that people don’t necessarily think about doing. Obviously, being an EMT is wonderful, being a medical assistant great too, and any sort of professional degree is also very valuable.
What do you feel are the most important aspects of the Hardin-Simmons program?
Our program was developed with a different focus than many of the programs in our state and our region. We are not at an academic health center, which makes us unique. We're a community-based program, and that often means that students will have opportunities to practice in areas they may not in an academic health center. There's not a medical school associated with our program, which means there's no one else competing for clinical slots. Our rotations are with community members.
The impetus for building this program was the community. The community had an outcry and said, "We need more PAs to be recruited to this area. We want PAs in our hospitals." They worked with all the universities and said, “Who can start up a program training program? This is so important for Texas.” And that’s a very different focus than some of the other programs around the country where being a preceptor may be a part of someone’s job, and they are required to do it. Our preceptors are all volunteers from the community, so that makes us unique.
Also, we are a very small campus, less than 3,000 students at the whole university including undergraduate and graduate programs, so it’s a nice environment. We really have an opportunity to give a lot of personalized care to our students, which is important to us. We have very low student-to-faculty ratios and are very student-focused.
We’ve also tried to be very innovative in our curriculum. For example, we have fully online courses in the didactic year. Not all of them, but each semester there is some opportunity for fully online course work. Not only is a course online but it's also self-paced. I have seen a ton of burnout before in PA students. So, we thought it was important for some courses, which don’t really require a scheduled face-to-face lecture, to be self-paced.
There hasn’t been a new PA program in Texas for 17 years. In my opinion, and of course, I’m biased, we’ve brought together a superstar cast of faculty and staff who are able to bring experiences from other universities and training programs. So it’s not all a one-note experience. We weren’t all trained at the same place and don’t all have the same experiences. We’ve been all over the country and all over the state doing different things, and we’ve brought together our rich experiences for this program.
How do you see the profession changing in regards to the pool of applicants applying?
I think the applicants are getting a little younger because a lot of students are taking classes for college credit in high school. I think the publicity of the PA profession continues to influence those interested in becoming a PA as a career change, but I think that has always been the case as people learn about the profession after they’ve already working.
Do you plan on expanding the class size?
We are locked in at 30 spots for a minimum of five years. We did not provide an expansion plan to ARC-PA when we submitted for credentialing. This was intentional to keep the class small and intimate. I can see expanding in the future, but right now we want to make sure our students have the best experience possible before we consider that.
I saw that application references do not have to be from specific individuals. What mix of references would you recommend to an applicant?
I think it’s always great to get someone who has worked with you in a more professional or academic setting. The thing we see as a detractor is when you get a family friend. When someone says they’ve known a student for 15 years and the student is 22, well it’s hard to judge character when you have known them since childhood. It’s better, in my opinion, to have someone who was a boss, supervisor, instructor, colleague, or someone you shadowed, those are all great people to get letters from.
Always steer away from anyone with a family connection and those related to you, and also personal friends.
With rolling admissions, how do you anticipate filling the class through the application cycle?
The strategy last year was to be sure there were spots available all the way until the end. If there were to be a change to this in the future, we would let those candidates know ahead of time. We would let the interviewees know that we’ve already filled the class and they were interviewing for a waitlist spot if that were to happen.
When we interview students, each cohort is not considered as a silo. Meaning that we pick students who we want to offer spots to right away, and everyone else who is not offered spots rolls into the greater pool of candidates and is up for consideration compared to the groups that interview after them. Unless we give someone a denial letter, which they would receive fairly quickly, they are still under consideration for the class or the wait list or both. No one is immediately waitlisted. We do the waitlist at the end.
I feel like this is the best way to give some but not all of the advantage to the early applicants. Because we really had some incredible quality applicants towards the end of the last cycle and we want the opportunity to have spots for them available. We want to take the people who we’d love to be providing care for us in the future.
I feel like this is the fairest we can be. It’s a true rolling admission, and right now we don’t have a limit on the number of interviews. We want to interview everyone that looks good on paper that we think would be a good fit for us.
What's your favorite interview question to ask?
I typically ask mostly open ended questions because I want students to have the opportunity to take it in the direction they want to. As far as a favorite question, that’s a trade secret! If I use it again, it will already be published, and everyone will already have their answer ready.
I will say that I do like to get students off script. Most of the questions are the common ones that everybody will ask them. But sometimes, when students have rehearsed so well, I’ll ask an oddball question that throws them off.
Do you consider the program to be rural-based?
It’s not our only focus; we want to prepare students to work in any environment. But, we definitely are serving a great deal of rural communities around the city of Abilene and throughout the state. We are requiring students to perform at least five weeks (or one full rotation) in a rural setting, which will give them a diversity of experience.
In your experience, what do you see PA students struggle with the most?
I think the volume of work is the biggest thing, which plays into time management. The biggest thing that I like to see students gain is confidence. I feel like that is so key to patients trusting you, and students struggle with it. Going from undergraduate to graduate is a tough transition. It’s a transition from people feeding you information and you essentially memorizing it and spitting it back out to becoming an adult learner.
In PA school, you’re given topics to look into rather than just being fed information. You really have to be motivated to be a life-long learner to navigate how to learn it on your own. There’s no possible way in a PA school program that we can lecture on every topic. Having that self-direction to go learn the information on your own, get with your group members, and really dig into the material is a tough transition for some students.
Is there any other information not available on the website that you would want applicants to know about your program?
This is a place where students can feel like part of a family. Here people can achieve their dreams, try their best, and be part of a new family. We have been incredibly intentional about designing a student focused program and I think those that come for interviews and information sessions really see that. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not easy, and we will push you to do your best.
Along with the online self-paced course each semester, we also have a little Maymester where two courses are done completely online, and students can go anywhere in the country and take their courses online. I think this can give them a mental break from the day-to-day grind of PA school.
Our big focus here will be missions. We’re going to do both local and global missions and service projects. We plan to take a trip every spring for an international trip, and that can be a time where students can stay enrolled in coursework and still participate in service learning. Intentional, thoughtful things like that to avoid student burnout were built into the curriculum.
The curriculum of the Hardin-Simmons PA program is impressively thoughtful. Truth be told, I was a little envious of the stress reducers for PA students that Dr. Eames and her team have built into the program. I would have loved to have that little Maymester as a PA student.
But luckily, you have the opportunity to add Hardin-Simmons to your list of target programs. If you are looking for a program that is determined to get you ready for practice and faculty eager to support you along the way, this school should be on your radar.
The Hardin-Simmons inaugural PA class starts August 28, 2017. Applications for next year's class, starting in August of 2018, will be taken through December 1.