Starting next year, graduates of the physician associate program will receive master’s degrees instead of the graduate professional degree now awarded. The Yale Corporation approved the change in June in recognition of the program’s curriculum, long considered to be of master’s level. The Class of 1999 will be the first since the program started in 1971 to receive master’s degrees.

The change comes, says Elaine E. Grant, PA-C, M.P.H. ’92, assistant dean and director of the physician associate program, as the profession debates whether a degree or a title is more appropriate. Students themselves have made their preference clear. “We started seeing more and more students choosing other schools to get a master’s,” Ms. Grant says.

Four years ago, in response to new standards for accreditation, the curriculum was amended to include research methodology, biostatistics and epidemiology. The 25-month course includes 10 months of classroom studies and 15 months of clinical training. For graduation, students must successfully complete 12 four-week rotations, which expose them to primary and emergency care. To ensure that students understand the profession they are entering, Ms. Grant said applicants must have worked as emergency medical technicians, nurses, hospital volunteers, research assistants or medical technicians or had other health care experience.

Physician associates, generally known as physician assistants, are licensed health care professionals who work with physicians. In most states they are licensed to prescribe medications and most work in primary care. The Yale program’s first class of five students graduated in 1973; in August, 36 students in the Class of 2000 began their studies. Students learn to take medical histories, perform physical examinations, order and interpret lab tests, diagnose and treat illnesses, assist in surgery and counsel patients. “The profession has been successful because the generalist educational component has allowed the profession to be flexible in fulfilling the health care needs of the country,” Ms. Grant said. “Physician associates have been able to shift as needs have shifted.”