Twenty-nine students in the Physician Associate Class of 2006 received their degrees at Commencement in September, entering a profession that has grown from small beginnings in the 1960s to more than 60,000 practitioners with their own national and specialty organizations. In his address, Commencement speaker Jerome P. Kassirer, M.D., noted advances in the profession but sounded a note of caution for all health care practitioners, including physician assistants. They face challenges, he said, over conflicts of interest, the influence of the pharmaceutical industry and ethical standards not designed for what he called a “market-driven” health care system.

“What is the antidote to all of these threats? How do we respond as individuals?” asked Kassirer, editor in chief emeritus of the New England Journal of Medicine. “The only antidote I know for these threats is professionalism.”

He defined professionalism as a combination of technical competence, a commitment to self-improvement and a requirement to use knowledge and competence in the best interests of patients. “You alone,” he said, “are the guardians of your profession.”

Dean Robert J. Alpern, M.D., Ensign Professor of Medicine, then presented a challenge to the new physician associates.

“I challenge you to strive to be great. There will be many times in your careers when you will make a choice, when you strive to be your best or just try to get by. I hope you will strive to be the best,” he said. “You can be smart. You can be hard-working. But you have to care for your patients.”

Student awards went to Maura Brennick, M.M.Sc., PA ’06, who received the Academic Achievement Award, Anne Flitner, M.M.Sc., PA ’06, who received the Clinical Excellence Award, and Scott McKay, M.M.Sc., PA’ 06, who was given the Dean’s Humanitarian Award for his work with the Student-Run Free Clinic.

The Didactic Instruction Award for dedication and excellence in the classroom went to Kalpana Gupta, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of medicine (infectious diseases). The Clinical Instructor Award, for a clinical rotation site that provides exemplary clinical teaching, was given to two preceptors in geriatric medicine, Chandrika Kumar, M.D., of Harborside Healthcare Arden House in Hamden, Conn., and assistant clinical professor at Yale Geriatric Services, and Gerard Kerins, M.D., section chief of geriatric medicine at the Hospital of Saint Raphael. The Jack Cole Society Award, for significant contributors who support the physician associate profession, was given to Claire Hull, PA-C, a former academic coordinator of the program who is now at Oregon Health & Science University.