Forty years ago, as the physician assistant profession was taking off around the country, the School of Medicine launched its own Physician Associate Program. On March 25, at the program’s fifth annual White Coat Ceremony, the program celebrated that anniversary.

“It’s hard for me to imagine that we are celebrating our 40th anniversary,” said Alfred Sadler Jr., M.D., founding director of Yale’s PA program. “When I made my transition from the basic sciences in medical school to the clinical sciences it was a very big deal when we got to put on our white coats. … In some ways this is just as important as a graduation ceremony. Now, you’ll be able to see patients, take care of patients. They will be relying on you. It means that you are part of the healing professions.”

Even after decades as a physician, Sadler said, he continues to see the white coat as a potent symbol. “When I go to my office, I come in my civilian clothes, go through charts, and go through papers. Then I reach for my white coat. And when I put it on something happens each time. I am ready to take care of patients. It’s a symbol for me, after all these years, of my role as a healer,” he said.

Following Sadler were two patients who described the importance of physician associates in their care. Maureen Hassett-Lindsey, who works at ESPN, offered a view from a patient’s perspective. “We’re anxious and we’re emotional and we’re upset. We want reassurance. Some sort of dialogue with your patient really helps,” she said. “It’s really helpful if you can treat the patient as a human being.”

David Kennedy, a case manager for a substance abuse facility, said a physician associate helped him after his diagnosis in 2007 with Type 2 diabetes. “He sat down and went over my history. He wanted to know everything that was going on with me,” Kennedy said. “He walked me through how I should eat. He walked me through my resting habits. He opened up a new door for me.”

After the patients spoke, students in the Class of 2012 took the stage, one by one, to receive their coats from members of the Class of 2011. The second-year students then received from each first-year student a School of Medicine crest, pinned onto their white coats. The ceremony takes place when the students have completed their basic science studies and training in the physical exam and are about to enter the clinical phase of their training.

The anniversary celebration continued the following day with panel discussions on the history of the profession and the program at Yale. The Yale program, which began under the auspices of the Trauma Program of the Department of Surgery, accepted its first class in 1971. Many of the 952 graduates of the program work in in-patient medicine, emergency departments, or ambulatory care clinics, as well as in specialty areas of medical practices.

Speakers and panelists at the symposium included Sadler and his brother Blair Sadler, J.D., founders of the Yale program; Patrick Killeen, PA-C, president of the American Academy of Physician Assistants;Burdeen Camp, PA-C ’73, and Richard Hall PA-C ’73 (first graduates of the Yale program); Ruth Ballweg, PA-C, a commissioner of the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants.