Can Online PA Programs Reduce the Cost of PA Education?
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LargeThumb.01720610-201506000-00002.FF1This article appears in the June issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants.

Of course, it was only a matter of time before it happened, and quite honestly I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner. In March, the Yale School of Medicine announced plans to launch an online physician assistant (PA) program in the fall of 2016.1-3 The online program would be the same as Yale’s current on-campus program in cost and length—$83,162 for a 28-month curriculum. The online program would enroll three cohorts per year, eventually increasing annual admissions by more than 300 students. It would include clinical rotations available throughout the United States, and on-campus time at three points: at the start of the program, after the didactic year and at the end of the program. The cost-saving potential for students in the new program consists of saving the housing costs associated with being a resident student at Yale, minus the cost of the three on-campus experiences.

However, at its March meeting, the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA), rather than approving Yale’s enrollment increase request, decided that Yale must accredit its online program through the lengthy and time-consuming provisional accreditation process. Although not totally killing the online PA program idea, ARC-PA’s actions will significantly slow down the program’s implementation.4,5

As one would expect, reaction to this announcement in my neck of the PA education community has been generally critical. Most of the criticism has been a variation of a familiar theme: How can a program add more than 300 PA students to its current enrollment when national clinical rotation capacity is already at or below meeting the current demand for PA student clinical sites? Most PA education administrators have realized that providing didactic curriculum for increasing PA enrollments is a challenge (given a national shortage of qualified PA faculty) but not an insurmountable task. However, the real limit to increasing PA enrollment is the shortage of clinical rotation sites. Until the clinical rotation site shortage conundrum is solved, increasing PA student enrollment will likely be a sum-zero operation—every additional rotation gained for a PA program may come at the expense of another PA program, medical student or nurse practitioner student.

However, if one ignores the clinical site shortage, several other interesting issues remain.

Read the rest of the article in JAAPA’s June issue.

Richard W. Dehn is a professor in the College of Health and Human Services at Northern Arizona University’s Phoenix Biomedical Campus, and chair of the university’s Department of Physician Assistant Studies.

And check out the current July JAAPA edition.

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