After 10 years in the U.S. Coast Guard, serving in places such as Korea, Kuwait, Iraq, California and Hawaii, Health Services Technician First Class Elizabet Figueroa says she knew she wanted to become a physician assistant in her civilian life.
Figueroa initially thought she wanted to be a nurse, until she served alongside PAs—including the medical officer for her unit. It was the first time she interacted with a PA, and quickly realized it was what she wanted to do as a civilian career.
“In the military, you live with PAs, serve with them, they care for you and there’s a bond there,” she said. She appreciates the time and attention PAs give their patients, and looks forward to the relationships she will be able to build by spending more time with them.
Figueroa’s first step to becoming a PA was finding out where she could enroll. Her military experience prepared her to enter the MEDEX PA program in Anchorage, Alaska. Many of the Coast Guard PAs she worked with were alumni of the University of Washington’s Seattle-based program. The military provided Figueroa with the two years, or 2,000 hours of work experience, required to enter the MEDEX program, but she still had to complete the prerequisite course work to be accepted into the program. MEDEX had advisers in place to help her complete any missing class work needed to enter the program.
“I had already staffed a clinic, saw patients, and out on deployment we were it. We were the only providers, so I had done triage and emergency medical evacuations and that’s not something a lot of classmates had done yet,” she said. “I was already familiar with a lot of the coursework, but needed some refreshers on pediatrics and geriatrics,” she said. “There aren’t too many older patients or children you treat in the military.”
The length of time required to become a PA was also a factor for Figueroa, who did not want to spend another eight to 10 years in school and on rotations after a decade in the military. “I want to go out and practice right away, especially in a small clinic. I like that close provider relationship and family practice gives you such a broad spectrum of patients.”
The federal government is taking steps to help more veterans like Figueroa become physician assistants.
To make it easier for veterans to leverage their military medical training to become PAs, the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) is giving priority in PA education grant awards to universities and colleges that support veterans. In fiscal year 2012, HRSA awarded 13 new grants to accredited physician assistant education programs. Eleven of the grantees have recruitment, retention and mentoring activities targeting veterans. Of the 170 accredited PA programs nationwide, many have created support systems and pathways for veterans to help them more easily transition into civilian life and enter their PA programs.
For more information, see the Physician Assistant Education Association’s “Information for Veterans” page.