1M lives touched

The physician assistant studies program serves its 1 millionth patient

By Megan Stroud | Photography by Jeff Montgomery

Physician assistant student Barry Myers talks with a patient in the simulation lab.

Since Dr. Michael Murphy founded the program, the first in the state of Arkansas, the physician assistant studies program has reached 1 million patients through the work of more than 400 students. 

Mary Madill, director of the program, was a student in the program’s first class in 2005 and took over the role of director from Murphy who retired in April 2020.

“[Murphy] has been watching out for this milestone for so long, and I think part of that is because it represented, within the program, how far we have come in a state where very little was initially known about PAs prior to the program starting,” Madill said. “It represents the culmination of efforts on a lot of different levels, just one of which being the fact that our students have seen that many people and exposed each one of them to the profession and the care that can be provided by a PA.” 

The PA program, a 28-month Master of Science degree program in physician assistant studies, begins with three semesters of didactic learning in the classroom and laboratory before students move to supervised clinical experiences. In March, the program transitioned to online course delivery with the rest of campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During the summer, the class of 2021 returned to complete the remainder of their required didactic coursework and joined the class of 2020 in supervised clinical settings, allowing the program to complete its 1 millionth patient encounter in August.

Patient encounters are logged by students in their off-campus clinical rotations, which take place nationwide and, sometimes, even overseas. During each patient encounter, the students are learning through hands-on experience and direct interaction with a patient. 

“Our mission is developing caring physician assistants who practice competent, patient-centered primary care in diverse environments,” Madill said. “So much of how we treat our students is what we want to model for them when they are going out and providing that patient-centered care. I had the honor of being part of the program’s mission from the beginning and saw that mission come to life as a primary care PA in rural Arkansas after graduation and now as the program director.” 

Marc Dipasupil, a student in the program who began his clinical studies in August, celebrates this milestone because of how it speaks to the program’s overall mission.

“If you look at it as just one number, one number represents someone who was helped, someone who was seen, someone who was heard and was ultimately ministered to by the program,” Dipasupil said. “It’s a big deal. When you look at the 1 million, that’s how many lives have been affected by Harding’s PA program. It’s a lot more than the students who have been taught here and the faculty who taught here, but the patients who were seen. Knowing that I’m coming from a program that has seen 1 million patients, it’s a reassuring thing. It’s a solid foundation. I really believe that my program has prepared me well.” 

Taylor Halter, a student in her eighth of nine clinical rotations, values the fact that she gets to be part of the legacy of Harding’s PA program and recognizes the value of the lessons she learned both in and outside the classroom. 

“Achieving the 1 millionth patient mark is incredible, and it’s an honor to be a part of the class that reached that milestone,” Halter said. “Not every health care profession offers such extensive training in so many different roles and specialties, which is the beauty of being a physician assistant. The education I have received from the HUPA program was based on medicine but also taught me empathy, compassion and humility.”

Gary Hill has been the clinical director since the inception of the program and oversees students during the clinical phase of their education.  

“We were very happy to see that milestone,” Hill said. “When you have seen 1 million patients, there is a lot of learning that has taken place. Our PA students have impacted the lives of 1 million people with direct person-to-person contact. That is a tremendous impact when you think about it. And our graduates working in the health care field literally all over the world have seen countless more.” 

According to Madill and Hill, the program’s preceptors are the only way this has been possible. Preceptors are physicians, PAs and nurse practitioners who train students for six weeks at a time. 

Dr. John Cook is a general surgeon in Jonesboro, Arkansas, and has been a preceptor for the program for more than five years. 

“What I enjoy the most has been getting to know and work with these PA students,” Cook said. “I honestly do not understand how the Harding PA program is able to repeatedly find the high caliber students that they do. They are all different, but each one has come here well prepared academically and hungry to learn more.” 

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