According to the Journal of Western Medicine, one of the chronic problems with the American medical system has been doctors’ tendency to practice in urban or suburban areas, leaving a dearth of medical care in rural ones. While nearly 20 percent of Americans live in rural areas, only 9 percent of physicians practice there. As a result, these people often suffer from lack of access to regular healthcare.
Enter the PA Distance Education Program offered through the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health (UWSMPH), which uses a combination of techniques to educate future PAs committed to serving their home communities.
How the Program Works
The UW-Madison PA Distance Education Program is structured so that students can complete it in three years. It allows for part-time study, allowing future PAs to work while continuing their education. The first two years are didactic and the third consists of a series of clinical rotations which take place in the student’s own home community.
The program cannot be completed entirely from a distance. Students are expected to report to the Madison campus for a 10-week program at the start of their education, and then twice a semester for short overnight stays during the first two years. During the third year, they will visit campus after each clinical rotation. However, the program is designed so that time spent on campus is minimized, allowing students to achieve 80 percent of PA training from home.
With the exception of these visits, students will study using lectures and discussions provided through a video library and the UW course management system. This technology, combined with the fact that clinical hours take place in each student’s individual community, gives the program a unique blend of distant and very localized education.
Putting It in Context
It is not tremendously surprising that a program like this is coming out of the UWSMPH, which Becker’s Hospital Review consistently ranks in the top 10 for primary care. The school also has a proven commitment to family medicine and to training physicians and PAs who want to practice in underserved communities.
The University of Wisconsin opened its PA program in 1977 and later expanded it to include not only the distance education program, but also the wisPact program, which trains PAs to work in underserved areas of Wisconsin. Virginia Snyder, Ph.D., PA-C, the director of the PA program, notes that technology is at the heart of the program’s ability to expand. As she explains, professors can “teach courses in technology-enhanced classrooms,” adding that “students will participate in synchronous classroom experiences … as well as web-based learning in an asynchronous format.”
This new technology — and the educational possibilities it affords students in rural or remote areas — may well be helped by the new bill signed into law in Wisconsin this past March. According to the Badger Herald, the Midwestern State Authorization Reciprocity Law will lead to the formation of the Distance Learning Authorization Board, which will create an agreement with 36 other states to increase cooperation for distance learning across state borders and use the same combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning technology to do it.
The University of Wisconsin’s PA Distance Education program, along with new state laws aiming to further expand the use of educational technology, should help create a new generation of trained, qualified PAs who have deep ties to their home communities and are willing to practice in rural areas that continue to need better access to healthcare.