Yale School of Medicine’s new Physician Assistant Online Program is enabling Phil Weaver, who has over 20 years of experience as a paramedic, the opportunity to challenge himself and expand his contributions to those in need of medical care. Weaver is one of 43 students in the inaugural Yale PA Online Program, which launched on January 4, 2018.
Weaver fits a profile Yale School of Medicine (YSM) had in mind when it created the PA Online Program: individuals with outstanding academic capabilities, who are unable to move near the Yale campus, and who are interested in serving in their home communities after completion of the program. His interest in serving in his home community is significant; a key reason Yale decided to create this program was to address the growing need for PAs in currently underserved parts of the United States, including many urban and rural areas.
While Weaver started his paramedic career in Chicago, since 2003 he has been with the Indian Health Service (IHS) in Arizona, on a sparse and underserved reservation approximately the size of Connecticut. The IHS, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is responsible for providing federal health services to Native Americans and Alaska Natives. The Tucson area of the IHS operates one 14-bed hospital and three outpatient health centers, treating approximately 20,000 patients annually from the Tohono O'odham Nation and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe. The Tucson area IHS only has two ambulances, supplemented by five ambulances run by a private entity. A few parts of the reservation have no electricity or running water. Western medicine coexists with the practices of medicine men, and while some members of the Native American community welcome the care provided by the IHS, others are resistant, adding a level of complexity to addressing the region’s health needs.
In addition to his IHS paramedic work, Weaver also has been a medic at a teaching hospital in Tucson for the past eight years.
Almost four years ago, Weaver began thinking about how to grow professionally. Working in health care on tribal lands, he was keenly aware of the growing need for physician assistants in rural areas of the United States, in part because of the shortage of doctors in these areas. Once he got the PA idea in his mind, he immediately started taking steps to make his goal obtainable, taking the science prerequisites he would need to apply to PA programs.
When he was ready to apply, the Yale PA Online Program was his first choice. Because of his life circumstances, the online format was ideal, enabling him to remain in his home community. The rigor and excellence of the Yale program also were significant factors in his decision making. Additionally, Weaver was excited about the opportunity to be a member of the inaugural class of this innovative program.
According to James Van Rhee, MS, PA-C, associate professor and director of the Yale PA Online Program, “Phil is one type of student this program was developed for: years of health care experience as a paramedic with the Indian Health Service and he is able to stay in his home community. He will bring these years of experience, as will all the students with a wide variety of experiences, to small group settings in the curriculum to enhance the learning of others.”
While the program is called the Yale PA Online Program, in practice it is a blended format. It begins with 12 months of online didactic work, much of it synchronous, with cohorts of 11 to 15 students engaging frequently with each other and a professor through the “Online Campus.” Students then embark on 15 months of clinical rotations, which predominantly can be completed near where they live, plus a capstone research project. Phil’s strong ties to the Tucson medical community will continue during the program. A doctor he worked with in Tucson will be his initial preceptor, and possibly continue to serve in that role during some of his clinical rotations. Relationships like this increase the likelihood that students will remain in their home communities after graduating from the program.
Additionally, the program includes three separate week-long immersions on the Yale Campus. Weaver looks forward to the first immersion in March. He is eager to meet his classmates in person and to access Yale’s tremendous facilities, such as the cadaver lab. He may have opportunities to engage with a few classmates in person before then, because one other classmate is based in the Tucson area, and one is in Phoenix, Arizona.
Although there are no guarantees that Weaver will end up returning to the Native American reservation as a PA, he is excited to be starting the Yale PA Online Program. On the older end of the age spectrum of his class, Weaver, 44, graduated from college more than 20 years ago. However, having spent the past few years taking science prerequisites, his mind is in “school mode” and he is eager to be starting his first eight courses.