HealthEd

Supporting Communities during Public Health Crises: Stories from PA Educators

Osmosis Team
Published on Sep 7, 2020. Updated on Sep 15, 2020.

Last week, Osmosis welcome leaders from the Physician Assistant Education Association and PA educator community for a webinar that discussed how PA’s have responded to recent public health crises. Learn more about how you can support your local community’s response to these crises by reading this post.

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on in the United States, the effects of systemic racism continue to create significant health inequities for Black people and people of color. Both the pandemic and systemic racism have caused public health crises we need to address.


One group of healthcare professionals—physician assistants—have answered the call by supporting their communities’ responses to these crises. And, last week, we hosted leaders from the Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA), as well as prominent PA programs, for a webinar on how PA’s have stepped up to serve their local communities.

Karen J. Hills, MS, PA-C (Chief, Educational Development at the PAEA) moderated a panel discussion with these leading PA educators:

Responding to COVID-19

To start the session, Dr. Straker noted how every PA program around the country was unexpectedly thrust into responding to these crises, and that programs that already had missions related to public health or service found themselves in a unique position to continue that engagement.

For example, the University of Southern California’s PA Program has had a street medicine program for a number of years, and they continued that program with a focus on COVID-19. Specifically, they worked with LA County and the city of Los Angeles to screen and provide care to people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic.

Dr. Straker also stressed the importance of PA programs, educators, and students seeing service as a part of their missions and making a commitment to providing care beyond just the people in their own health systems.

Next, Quincy discussed how PA students at Duke were pulled from clinical rotations in mid-March, leading her program to face the dilemma of how to provide clinical course credit to their students during a pandemic. Around this time, Duke’s faculty heard from the local health department that they had a great need for contact tracing and case investigation.

So, the Duke University PA Program engaged in dialogue with the local health department, and they worked together to develop an elective rotation that allowed students to provide 30 hours per week of contact tracing and case investigation. While students did not interact face-to-face with patients, they worked over the phone to conduct contact tracing and completed didactic work related to community health.

In total, these PA students provided more than 1,500 hours of contact tracing to the health department, and many of them chose to volunteer with this organization after completing the course.

At the University of Utah, Darin shared how his program already included a robust community engagement curriculum, which meant they had established relationships with many local partners. These partnerships allowed students to participate in clinical rotations with the public health department as well as poison control.

Addressing systemic racism

When addressing systemic racism and injustice, Darin remarked that he and his colleagues started by making sure they always stayed in contact with students—hosting town halls and sharing explicit statements in support of them—to show them they cared and actively wanted to work to narrow the power differential.

As well, Darin noted how the University of Utah PA Program’s students engaged in activism. For example, students from the program’s White Coats for Black Lives chapter marched on the deans’ office, and as a result, the university developed new scholarships and decided to employ the PA program’s diversity and inclusion model in the school of medicine.

During the audience question and answer portion of the webinar, one student described how their program has not created anything like the social justice or pandemic response initiatives mentioned by the panelists. They then asked how they can work with and in their program to create a space that welcomes and strives to help the community, especially around issues related to racial disparities?

In response, Quincy encouraged students to open dialogue with their faculty and staff about their interests and to have those conversations with each other. She also cited examples of Duke University PA students taking action on their own, including students who hosted town halls to discuss these issues.

Towards the end of the webinar, on the topic of students driving change, Dr. Straker commented that they are often ahead of the faculty on these issues, and they have an opportunity to inspire their faculty to take action. For instance, he mentioned that The George Washington University PA program has a student-run clinic because students came up with the idea.

Next steps

Do you lead a physician assistant program or study in one as a student? If so, as you go forward over the next academic year, consider looking for opportunities to support your local communities’ responses to these public health crises.

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