Delivering good medicine

PAS program meets needs for employers, area patients

by Dottie Barnes

Rachel Rivera and her 3-year-old daughter, Aanii, are regular patients of Amy Werling, a physician assistant who works at the Sparta Health Center, a community benefit ministry of Mercy Health in Sparta. Rivera has diabetes and has been a patient of Werling’s for nine years. Werling also treated Rivera when she was having difficulty conceiving a child.

“Ms. Werling helped me get my miracle,” said Rivera. “She’s the only provider I’ve seen since moving to the area 10 years ago.”

Werling started working at the Sparta Health Center 10 years ago, after graduating from Grand Valley’s physician assistant studies (PAS) program in 2007. Her first clinical rotation was in family medicine at the center and she said it immediately felt like home.

“I call myself a jack-of-all-trades,” said Werling. “I’m a good decision maker and I like the puzzle of trying to figure out what’s happening with a patient and how to make them better.”

There are two doctors and three physician assistants (PAs) on staff at the center, including Werling and another Grand Valley alumna who was recently hired. About 1,200 patients visit the center each month.

Werling, who was a Spanish minor, said many patients are Spanish-speaking and from the migrant population. She said patients come from as far away as Grand Rapids or Big Rapids because they know they can be understood by their health care provider without an interpreter.

“I chose family medicine and this health center, instead of surgery or a specialty, because I enjoy developing relationships,” she said. “I get to know the families, and extended family members. I like to follow-up with patients to make sure they are getting better.”

Werling said she chose Grand Valley’s program because of its structure. “I liked the balance of instructional education and clinical rotations. I was well prepared for what I was trained to do,” she said.

Werling serves on Grand Valley’s Physician Assistant Program Advisory Committee, which develops, maintains and evaluates the quality of the program. Her brother, Joe Shepherd, is following in her footsteps and will graduate from the program in December.

woman examines girl in health clinic

Amy Werling, ’07, a physician assistant at the Sparta Health Clinic, examines 3-year-old Aanii Rivera. photo by Amanda Pitts

PAs in high demand

When Grand Valley’s program started in 1995, the PA profession was experiencing explosive growth. Andrew Booth, department chair and assistant professor of PAS, said the same type of growth has been seen during the last few years.

“People are living longer and people who are sick are living longer,” said Booth. “The physician profession hasn’t increased its numbers at a rate that is sustainable to the number of people needing health care. PAs are filling that need.”

He said students in Grand Valley’s program are finding jobs before they graduate. “The PAS program is very well-respected in the medical community. We have built a strong rapport with our physician colleagues, health care professionals and employers who know we deliver good medicine,” Booth said.

Each student in the program has a clinical rotation at an underserved clinic and also has  the option for an international rotation. “Our students need to see and understand that treating those in underserved populations is a unique type of medicine,” said Booth.

“People who don’t have access, don’t have insurance, don’t have money, or can’t afford medications deserve access to quality health care and we hope to provide an education to those who will serve those communities.”

PAs also provide good economic value, Booth said, because they perform examinations, make clinical diagnoses, treat illnesses, counsel patients, assist in surgery, interpret laboratory studies and prescribe medications, all at a reasonable expense to their employer.

“This is an avenue that health care employers can take to help offset costs,” he said. “PAs do many of the same things physicians do, but they do it at a reduced rate.”

Physician assistant studies program

The PAS program, housed in the College of Health Professions, is offered in two locations: the Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences on the Medical Mile in downtown Grand Rapids and the University Center in Traverse City.

The program expanded to Traverse City in 2014 and the first cohort will graduate in December.

One of those graduates will be Heath Meir, a 41-year-old paramedic from Boyne City. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Grand Valley in 1999 as a health science major.

hand and stethoscope

photo by Bernadine Carey-Tucker

He said he knew the program was competitive, so he moved home and trained as an emergency medical technician and then worked as a paramedic for seven years.

“I got married and we have four young boys, so I didn’t want to move away to complete a program,” Meir said. “My  dream of becoming a PA was nearly lost and then I heard about Grand Valley’s program coming to Traverse City.”

Meir said he loves the fast pace and challenge of an emergency department. He is interviewing for a position at McLaren Northern Michigan Hospital in Petoskey, where he did his emergency medicine rotation. “My classmates are like family,” he said. “Our professors did a great job getting us ready for the profession. Having the program offered here is invaluable.”

Healthy curriculum

The PAS program includes 16 months of instructional education and 12 months of clinical rotations. Booth said a brand-new curriculum was created in 2009. “We made changes based on what we were seeing in the industry and health care environment, what we saw in our data and what we were hearing from alumni,” he said.

Booth said he is often asked how Grand Valley students have a near 100 percent pass rate on clinical boards year after year. He said the faculty members, who come from diverse medical backgrounds, are dedicated to the students and the way they deliver the material.

“It’s a simple formula. We train students to be exceptional PAs,”  he said. “The board exam is to determine whether a graduate will be a competent PA. If we train them correctly, they will perform well on the boards.”Grand Valley is expanding its health campus in Grand Rapids to meet the increasing demand from students and health care providers.

PAS program

• 28 months long

• Programs in Grand Rapids and Traverse City

• 550 graduates since the program begin in 1995

• 99.8% overall first time pass rate on the boards

• Includes lecture, lab, small group, simulation and clinical experiences

Raleigh J. Finkelstein Hall is currently under construction downtown and will be completed in May. Construction on a second health building on the Medical Mile will begin in June. Booth said the expansion will provide the PAS program with its own designated lab.

“Our graduates gain medical knowledge beyond the baseline,” said Booth. “They are very highly regarded, and sought after. PAs from Grand Valley have gone on to become CEOs, VPs, and high-ranking administrators, but most of all, PAs from our program are outstanding clinicians who are serious about quality health care delivery and treating every patient with dignity and respect.”

Page last modified November 13, 2017