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Brenau, Philadelphia college join forces for physician assistant program
Julie Mathis, a physician assistant at The Longstreet Clinic, gets a look inside the mouth of patient Rachel Peck, 11, Wednesday afternoon. Leaders from Brenau University and Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine are signing an agreement to create a five-year accelerated physician assistant program at the Gainesville university.

Leaders from Brenau University and Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine will sign an agreement this afternoon to jump-start a five-year accelerated program at Brenau for physician assistant studies.

Ed Schrader, president of Brenau University, said in a news release the program underscores Brenau’s commitment to addressing the growing shortage of health care professionals locally and nationally. Schrader will join Matthew Schure, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania college, in signing the agreement at Hopkins Hall on the Brenau campus.

Schure said in a prepared statement the agreement supports both institutions’ goal of training highly qualified health professionals to serve in the South.

Students will spend the first three years of the joint program in specialized studies at the Brenau campus. Following the three years of specialized studies at Brenau, students will spend 14 months focusing on professional studies at the college’s main campus in Philadelphia. In the final year, students will perform their clinical studies in Gainesville under the supervision of both the Pennsylvania faculty and doctors affiliated with The Longstreet Clinic and Northeast Georgia Medical Center.

The accelerated program will allow students to earn bachelor of science and master of science degrees in five years rather than in six to seven years of study.

Dr. Gale Hansen Starich, dean of Brenau’s School of Health and Science, said roughly a dozen students are enrolled in the program, which will begin in August.

The program will teach students how to perform many of the patient-related tasks traditionally reserved for doctors, including writing prescriptions, conducting physical exams, diagnosing and treating illnesses, interpreting tests and assisting in surgery.

Sometimes referred to as "physician extenders," physician assistant careers are the second fastest growing occupation in the nation for college graduates, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. Physical therapists, physical therapist assistants, dental hygienists and registered nurses are also listed as growing careers.

Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine already has a medical school branch located in Suwanee.

Jeanne McGahee, a compliance specialist at The Longstreet Clinic, said several Pennsylvania medical students perform their clinical studies at the Gainesville clinic, and the clinic will now extend its program to include the Philadelphia college’s physician assistant students.

McGahee said physician assistant students from Emory University, Medical College of Georgia and North Georgia College & State University already perform their clinical studies at The Longstreet Clinic, where they work with doctors to address patient needs.

Starich said the need for health care professionals in Georgia is huge.

She said Georgia ranks 40th in the nation for physicians per capita, but 10th in the nation in population. She said as Georgia’s population has swelled, its rate of turning out physicians has not.

"It’s really important physician assistants and family nurse practitioners get out there in the work force as soon as possible to help alleviate this physician shortage that we have," she said.

With baby boomers entering their golden years, the demand for health care will only increase, which requires the next generation to care for the large population of aging adults, Starich said. She added she believes the nation’s health system is in flux, and it definitely needs to improve to provide better care for Americans and to attract more students to the medical field.

She said a big problem in the shortage of health care professionals nationwide is that it’s extremely expensive for universities to provide health care education programs. In addition, Starich said most professionals qualified to teach medical courses earn much larger salaries serving as private physicians than as medical school professors.

Starich said upon completing a master of science degree, physician assistants typically earn salaries starting at about $73,000 and up in their first year on the job.