SEARCY, Ark. – Harding University graduated its first class of physician assistants Saturday, one of the fastest growing professions in the nation.
The Searcy university is the only school in Arkansas to offer an accredited master’s degree program in the field. The assistants can prescribe some drugs, assist in surgery, conduct exam, diagnose illnesses and interpret tests under a licensed doctor. Now, as medical costs continue to rise, experts hope the assistants can fill a needed gap in care and bring down health care costs.
The school’s inaugural class had 16 students who completed the 26-month program.
So far, 12 of the 16 students in Harding’s first class plan to stay in Arkansas, said Dr. Michael Murphy, the program’s director. He said desire to have more free time as much as anything else played a part in becoming a physician assistant instead of a doctor.
“Of the 72 people in this program, I could easily see half of them going to medical school and doing well if they wanted to,” Murphy said. “They have the grades and everything else.”
Jonna Webb, 38, had enrolled in medical school, but wanted to spend more time with her 2-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son.
“I knew it wasn’t going to work with my family life,” said Webb, a Clarksville-area resident.
Statistics show the median income for physician assistants from their primary employer was $80,356 in 2006. Those who graduated in 2005 made $69,517.
Out of the 26-month program, Harding students spend about 15 months, or about 2,200 hours, in clinical settings on six-week rotations, including emergency surgery, clinical care and geriatric care. They work under doctors, nurse practitioners and others.
Besides giving them training, such rotations are akin to internships, putting students in contact with doctors or other employers and often lead to jobs. Murphy said about 75 percent of the graduating students already have accepted jobs.