NGU partners with GHS to launch physician assistant program

TIGERVILLE, S.C. – North Greenville University and Greenville Health System will partner to launch the Upstate’s first physician assistant program, considered a vital step toward helping ease a growing provider shortage in the Upstate.

Announced at a press conference Thursday morning, the proposed Master of Medical Science program is expected to launch in January 2017, with the first 32 students expected to graduate in 2019.

Officials said the program is expected to have as many as 144 students a year by 2021. Currently, the state’s only physician assistant training program is in the Low Country.

“It is going to be an exciting partnership,” said James B. Epting, Ed.D., president of North Greenville University. “As an educational institution that stresses service, we’re particularly proud to be able to bring this program to the Upstate and provide great jobs for our graduates."

Added GHS President and CEO Michael Riordan, “There is a tremendous need for physician assistants, and we are delighted to be working with North Greenville University to meet the Upstate’s needs. Working together, we will help close the gap between available care and demand.”

“Health care is changing; by working together, GHS and its clinical university partners can make transformative changes that improve care and access – but also help manage costs,” he said.

The program is part of the GHS Clinical University, an innovative initiative through which GHS leverages its clinical expertise with the educational strengths of its partners to meet workforce and patient needs. GHS, although only recently designated a shared academic health center, has been a clinical training ground for more than 100 years. Through its partnerships and affiliations with colleges and universities, GHS educates more than 5,000 students each year.

North Greenville University is one of 10 affiliate partners in the GHS Clinical University. The clinical university model includes three primary partners – Clemson University, Furman University and the University of South Carolina.

“Mid-level providers such as physician assistants and nurse practitioners will be essential in mitigating expected physician shortages but also in meeting challenges of health care moving forward,” said Spence Taylor, M.D., the president of the GHS Clinical University and vice president of academics at GHS. “Physician assistants will play a pivotal role as health care evolves to emphasize long-term patient health instead of illness treatment.”

“Only by significantly increasing the number of qualified practitioners in those areas will we be able to provide appropriate care in a way that ensures quality, accessibility and affordability,” said Taylor. “Currently, we have massive shortages in these mid-level provider fields – and anticipated shortages of physicians within as few as 20 years.”

Frequently called PAs, physician assistants act under minimal supervision of a physician. PAs perform physical examinations, diagnose and treat illnesses, order and interpret lab tests, perform procedures, assist in surgery, provide patient education and counseling and make rounds in hospitals and nursing homes. In rural areas, the PA may be the only healthcare provider on-site, collaborating with a physician elsewhere through telecommunication.  

The proposed program has applied for provisional accreditation from the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant. Provisional accreditation is anticipated in 2016.

Even before it was publicly announced, the program has drawn interest from potential students, said Greg Davenport, D.H.Sc., North Greenville’s associate dean of health professions and himself a PA with 25 years experience.

The average salary for a PA is $85,000.

Said Davenport, “Expanding the number of practicing PAs is only smart, especially when the Association of American Medical Colleges predicts a 90,000 physician shortage by 2020. As the paradigm of health delivery shifts to meet this shortfall, new models of care – like the patient-centered medical home – are ideally suited for the PA provider, who has a medical education, team-based practice approach and strong focus on wellness and prevention.”