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As role expands for physician assistants, MTSU program sees wave of applicants

Katherine Ceicys
Maranda Vecchio, center, is an Army veteran and mother of two who is among the first enrollees at MTSU's physician associate program.

With a projected 28% increase in “physician assistant” jobs in the next decade, chances are the next time you need medical care, you may be seen by what’s widely known as a “PA.”

And to clear up a common misconception, the title isn’t Physician’s Assistant (with an apostrophe ‘s’). It’s Physician Assistant. But more on that in a moment.

The role is a somewhat recent addition to the medical field. In 1965, Dr. Eugene Stead at Duke Medical Center created the first class of physician assistants to help meet the increasing need for primary care providers. Since then, the profession has expanded.

PAs have a master’s level education. As clinicians, they work on a team and provide a lot of general care that doctors can, like conducting exams, making treatment plans, writing prescriptions and performing many procedures.

“A three-ring circus and they’re all on fire, to be totally honest. But there’s so much beauty in that, too,” says Maranda Vecchio, describing her life as a mom of two and full-time PA student at Middle Tennessee State University. She’s also an Air Force veteran.

“I think I want to do something more broad, like an urgent care or emergency medicine — something where I would kind of get a little bit of everything thrown at me,” she says.

Unlike doctors or nurse practitioners, PAs can change the setting they work in without additional training. Vecchio likes this flexibility and is still deciding where to start her

Katherine Ceicys
Marie Patterson directs the physician assistant program at MTSU.

MTSU’s new program attracted over 800 applications for 30 spots last year.

“We hope that we can draw a lot of in-state students, and then keep them in our state so that we can increase access to care here,” says Dr. Marie Patterson, who directs the program.

PAs are meeting the increasing demand for primary care providers — but not without some bumps in the road.

In response to patient confusion about the title physician assistant, their national organization, the American Academy of Physician Associates, voted for a name change — to physician associate. It’s a term undergoing a gradual adoption.

Also, many states continue to debate restrictions on PAs, some of which were temporarily loosened during COVID. A major association for doctors, the American Medical Association, has campaigned against giving PAs a wider scope of practice.

Patterson, though, isn’t worried.

“Physicians that have worked with PAs would speak very highly of the work that we do and the role that we play on the health care team, and vice versa,” she says.

However their role evolves, MTSU’s first graduates will be working in the field as soon as 2024.

Correction: This story originally gave the wrong military experience for Maranda Vecchio. She served in the Air Force, not the Army.

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