Properly assessing if a PA program might be the right fit for you involves more than a passing look at the admission requirements. If you want to find the programs that are best for you, it's crucial to understand the culture, teaching style, and curriculum.
Though PA programs can share many similarities, learning about the nuances between them can help you discover your target schools.
One program distinguishing itself through its curriculum is the West Liberty University PA Program. For the past few years, the program has worked to integrate training on a modern health crisis, the rise of prescription drug abuse, to better prepare new graduate PAs for practice.
Located in West Liberty, West Virginia, it's one of three programs in the state and has a preference for graduates of WLU and West Virginia residents as well as applicants with direct patient care experience and a record of community service.
Dr. Bill Childers, EdD, MS, PA-C, the director of West Liberty's PA Program, was kind enough to chat with me about the details of his program.
Can you tell me what your program's looking for in an ideal applicant?
Dr. Childers: First of all, I have to be honest. I don't think there's any such thing as the ideal applicant. I've been in PA education for a number of years, and I think if anybody was able to coin exactly the ideal applicant, then only that particular type of person would become a PA and that would leave a bunch of people out in the cold. So, one of the things that I find interesting and somewhat fatiguing is there's no such thing as the ideal applicant and there are certainly qualities that we look for, but as soon as you think you have the ideal figured out, then somebody else comes along and they're very different and they do well or vice versa.
So, I think there are certainly things that we are looking for in applicants. We want folks who have an idea of why they want to be a PA. We desire that they have some type of an idea of what motivates them to become a PA, as all PA programs are pretty complex and difficult and rigorous. You really need a lot of time and effort and purpose behind what you’re doing, in my opinion, to be able to do it and then, secondarily, to be able to do it well. So, certainly the “why” is important.
Academic preparation is important as well. You have to have a certain amount of background knowledge and track record of performance that says, "Hey, I've taken the rigorous course work. I've not taken the easy road. I've put myself through the wringer to try and prepare myself as best as possible."
Something else is work ethic. As far as how do you assess that—that's a long-winded answer. But, we want to know that people are going to show up and they're going to work hard. Generally speaking, no matter what your undergrad prep was, you're going to have to process, at least volume-wise, a greater amount of information than you ever have before. We want to know that you have the work ethic to be studying every evening and on the weekends, and so that work ethic is really important.
Sort of along the same lines is perseverance. In addition to you working hard, do you have what it takes to continue when you don't get as good of a grade? Some of our students, they've never gotten a C before in their lives until they come into the PA program. Do they have the perseverance to take constructive criticism, to not do as well, and to then be able to reflect upon that and not take it so personally but to grow from that and to improve and to be constantly open to self-improvement? They need to be open to not only improving their level of information but also around how they communicate, how they interact with their future patients, how they interact with faculty, and how they interact with students. So, perseverance is pretty important.
And finally, good written and oral communication skills. One of the things I've kind of said for many years is that that physicians use 10-cent words and patients use five-cent words, and so I think it's important for a PA to use five-cent words to communicate on a patient’s level. We're not necessarily looking for the 4.0 student here who can tell me the 0.5% chance of a sub-arachnoid hemorrhage in a case. We're looking more for the very intelligent, motivated, disciplined, perseverant student who is able to communicate with their patients and make them understand who can also communicate with their physicians and people that they refer patients to in written format as well. So, communication is pretty important.
It’s certainly not a complete list, but those are some of the things I would say off the top of my head.
I mean, everybody wants to know, "Hey, what are the five things, so to speak, that I have to do to get in?" They get frustrated when you can't give them five things. On the other hand, because it's not a definitive list, that actually means that everybody has a reasonable chance of getting in.
Can you tell me what you think are the most important aspects of your PA program?
I think there are several things. Probably number one is our cohort size. We have 18 students. If you look at the national mean, it's 46. And so our cohort size is very small. And that, I think, is a positive and negative. If you want to come to a PA program, blend in and coast, this is not where you should come. But you will be known well here. I had a conversation this morning with a faculty member where we were talking about a student who is not doing as well as we think he should. We actually have conversations about things like this before students get into jeopardy and fail an exam or go on probation. We know our students well enough that we know how they're doing and if they're meeting expectations.
And that goes beyond just academia. I mean, we know our students well enough to know if personal issues, which affect a lot of students, are impacting them, we're aware of those kinds of things. We're such a small program with a small number of faculty that we do a pretty good job of communicating from one person to the next about, "Hey, this student is struggling in this class. Did you see this?" So I could go on and on about that, but it really relates to our "smallness", maybe not a great academia word but I think it conveys what we're trying to talk about. That's the main thing.
And I think we have a really nice facility. We are a small public university, essentially our facility is brand new. We have, largely, solely dedicated classrooms and facilities for our program so we almost never have to share with other programs. I don't have to worry about whether I can get my students into a particular classroom. I don't have to worry about whether our students have access to this or that because our university has dedicated a space and relatively new facilities, which I think conveys that our university's pretty serious about supporting this program. I've been in several different programs and that's not necessarily the case. So I think it is definitely also our facility that we have.
As far as other important aspects, we do a systems-based approach. We try to cover, at least in close proximity, all of the aspects of a body system. For example, cardiology. So, we're having pharmacology, pathophysiology, and clinical medicine around cardiology in close proximity or at the same time. I think that helps students to connect the dots so that they're covering many different aspects of the same topic or the same system at once.
I think an important aspect about our program is that we do give preference to West Virginia students and West Liberty students, as well as folks that have some medical experience and community service. So we do look at all those things. No, that does not mean that you're not going to get in if you're not from West Virginia. That's not the case. For example, we go back and forth between maybe 50% in-state, 50% out-of-state and sometimes it's only 30% in-state, so it just kind of varies.
Can you speak to the inspiration for incorporating training on the opioid epidemic for PA students in your program?
If you just Google “West Virginia” and “opioids,” you're going to come up with all kind of scary statistics. If you just Google “opioid statistics” and “worst state in the nation”, West Virginia is going to be number one or definitely in the top two or three. I'm a native West Virginian, and so recognizing how much of an issue this is for our country but more specifically our state and our area, you really couldn't be a program director or a faculty member in good conscience and not make some curricular modifications to try to address this.
We actually did this before PAEA came out with the SAMHSA grant and MAT trainings, about two and a half to three years ago. And there are many specific things that we have added and modified because of the huge problem, more specifically intra-state but also throughout our country.
We don't go by the traditional semester system, we go by terms. Each one of these terms is about 11 to 12 weeks. In the didactic phase, which is the first 12 months, we have a particular course, Health Promotion/Disease Prevention. There's a specific lecture in that course that talks about substance abuse disorders and tobacco use. Now notice, I didn't just say opioid, but opioids are included in that. In addition to that, in the pharmacology course that term, pain medication and drug abuse are discussed for several hours, including opioids.
During the same term in the clinical skills course, prescription writing is covered to specifically include prescriptive laws and how to write instructions on scheduled drugs to minimize the chances of patients writing things on prescriptions to change or alter the medications. That’s in the third term.
Then in the fourth term, in the behavioral medicine course, we have an additional substance abuse lecture covering behavioral aspects of drug use and abuse. Now, again, not specifically of opioids, but opioids are not the only issue that we're dealing with.
Also, there are certainly some students here who have no idea what these things look like, how do they use them, how do patients ingest them? We actually bring up the local drug task force to try to cover some of those aspects. In the clinical medicine course this term, we have an emergency medicine physician who comes in and talks specifically about overdose management that includes opioids, of course, but we're also talking about synthetics that have been an increased problem over the past several years.
Then, in the Clin Med 4 course, which is more specific to pediatrics, there's a discussion about neonatal absence syndrome in our newborn lecture. We're covering that aspect, too.
All I previously mentioned is in the didactic phase, and we added all of that in the past two and a half years. I applaud the PAEA SAMSHA grant and really think it is a good, possible opportunity, but we saw the train coming down the tracks before that, and we just really thought we needed to do something more.
In the clinical phase, we actually have had a representative from Impaired Practitioners in the state of West Virginia. She came for the first time last year and talked about impaired providers. She discussed things such as what are some healthy habits to try to decrease your chances of getting yourself in that situation? Just letting folks know that as an impaired provider, it doesn't necessarily mean that if you unfortunately get caught up in that, that your career's over. There are programs to hopefully get providers back into practice if possible. So, we fully recognize that it's not just patients, but it's also providers that are having problems with this.
In the state of West Virginia in order to practice as a PA and have a license, you have to have a mandatory three hour training session on drug diversion training, which is specific to opioids, as well as other medication and pain meds on how to prescribe, how long can you prescribe, those kinds of things. Therefore, in addition in the clinical phase, we’ve been providing the training for about three years now. All students, whether they're from West Virginia, plan on practicing in West Virginia, or otherwise, take all this. It's very beneficial to anybody that's going to be potentially prescribing addictive medication.
Then, lastly, also in the clinical phase, we also have our professional issues course. We have discussions about prescriptive laws and regulations, which are, of course, somewhat different from one state to the next.
If you add all everything that I mentioned up, that's about 15 hours that we've modified/added to courses throughout the program. we really thought it was important.
What have you found to be the biggest challenge to incorporating this training into your existing curriculum?
It's absolutely the time factor. If you know anything about PA education, it's kind of like one of those water balloons where you press on one side and then it bulges out the other. It's really hard to fit more in.
Are you able to share how candidates are selected for the program?
Well, we have rolling interviews. We have at least a couple different faculty members who review all files. We have at least six different faculty members who do different interviews. We've put all of that together to figure out, whom do we want to come?
Nobody knows exactly who's the best applicant, who's going to be successful for sure, who's not going to be successful, so we think it is best to have multiple different professionals who have worked in PA education and as PAs over the years. We put all of their opinions together and come up with who we think would be the most likely folks to be successful in the program.
We encourage everybody to apply early. We even give preference to those that complete early, which is clearly stated on our web page. Then, we do rolling interviews. We do not have a set number of seats that we fill every interview. Again, it depends on the people that apply and how well they do. It really varies from one group to the next.
How many folks do you normally interview for those 18 spots?
We probably interview around a hundred.
Is there anything additionally about the program that you would want applicants to know that we haven't discussed so far?
Well, I think there are several things. When people are interested in attending a PA program, number one, if they're fortunate enough to be granted a seat, I understand many times that's where they're going to go. However, when students are granted two seats with greater number of programs and greater competition, increasingly we're seeing students who have options.
If an applicant finds themselves in the fortunate position of choosing which program to attend, I think there are several things that applicants should know about a program.
Number one, cohort size, you need to take a look at that. Number two, faculty education and experience. As far as education, I mean not only comparing our faculty as well as the number of years of formal education that they have had, but also the number of years of experience specific to PA education. I didn't even mention clinical experience of faculty members, which is several decades. I think that is another distinguishing characteristic between us and other programs.
I also think you have to look at cost. Everybody knows there's no such thing as inexpensive PA education. However, if you are fortunate to be able to choose, then with the increasing concern about the cost of PA education, which is valid, you need to take a look at program cost. This is clearly stated on our web page—it is an accreditation requirement. I think we do a really good job of giving you an idea of the entire picture of what it is going to cost you. We're the least expensive in-state program in West Virginia at this point. Depending on where you are from out of state, we may still be less expensive. I think you need to look at that.
Next thing is that everybody looks at is PANCE pass rate. This past year, we had 100%.
The other thing to look at, I think, is our resources. We have a really nice facility. I can honestly tell you that if we need it, I think we will probably be able to get it. Now, I kind of joke with students and say, "No, we don't need a CAT scan machine, so I won't be able to put that into a lab," but anything that we need, I think we will be able to get.
I think if you put all that together, we're a very good program. We just did some recent alumni survey for the first time and we had a really good response rate, over 30 percent for every year. On a scale of one to five with three being sufficient with categories covering whether we achieved the mission of the program and if we prepared them for clinical practice, the scores respectively were 4.06 and 4.12. That’s objective data from alumni that say we're doing well. We are not a perfect program. No program is.
We are a young-ish program, which to me means we continue and we will always continue to look at how things are going. We'll improve this, we'll modify this. We have a good base, but yet, I think because of our size and other things, we're very adept at making changes when they're necessary.
Program directors and PA school faculty members are some of the busiest people I know, so an extra big thanks to Dr. Childers for spending the time to answer my many questions and help prospective PAs learn more about what WLU has to offer.
To learn more about West Liberty University's PA program requirements, mission, and program goals, check out the West Liberty PA program website.