Yale University will experience a first on Commencement Day 2020, beyond its first virtual ceremony: it will be conferring Master of Medical Science degrees to the inaugural class of Yale School of Medicine’s Physician Assistant Online Program (Yale PA Online), Yale’s first degree-granting program that blends online and in-person learning. Ironically, Yale’s 28-month PA Online Program is graduating its first class as COVID-19 caused schools worldwide to quickly convert to online curricula.
The 40 graduating students spent their first year engaged in highly-interactive classes and coursework, while also gaining over 120 hours of direct patient care experience near their hometowns. They then spent 15 months in clinical rotations, again near where they live, and one month working on a capstone project. The PA Online Program includes three one-week Immersions on Yale’s campus, though the Class of 2020’s final Immersion, which was to have included a graduation ceremony on May 1, had to take place online, due to COVID-19.
A central idea behind the creation of the Yale PA Online Program was to make a Yale PA education more accessible to highly-qualified candidates nationwide, enabling people who may not have the flexibility to move to New Haven because of family or other obligations, to stay in their home communities. Since participants complete their rotations in or near where they live, it increases the chances they will work as PAs in those communities. This is significant because of the rapidly growing need for qualified PAs in primary care across the United States, including in medically-underserved areas. The members of the Class of 2020 are from 14 states, spanning from Hawaii to Florida. (Overall, there are students from 38 states and the District of Columbia in the PA Online Program.)
Steven Montague ’20, who lives in San Diego, where he will stay after graduation to practice as an urgent care, emergency medicine PA (and get involved in PA education), exemplifies the students drawn to the program. Montague is married to a registered nurse, who is enrolled full-time in school. They have a young daughter and another on the way. He explains “there are no PA programs in San Diego. For me to attend PA school, I would've had to either leave my girls for years at a time or move them across the country to a place where we had no support system during these challenging endeavors. Being a pioneer in Yale PA Online made it possible for me to become a PA while still maintaining the integrity of my family structure and our individual goals.” He adds that “the evidence demonstrates that medical providers who are trained in the cities where they will work after graduation yield better patient outcomes.”
Andrew Galbraith ’20, based in Alexandria, Virginia, who will work as a cardio surgery PA in a cardiovascular intensive care unit at a large hospital in Northern Virginia after graduating, echoes this sentiment, “I am grateful to have had the opportunity to complete PA school through this innovative format. It allowed me the flexibility I needed to pursue a career as a PA while being married to a professional and raising our young son. I am proud that our program makes PA school a viable option for well-qualified candidates who do not have the flexibility to relocate cross-country to attend a program.”
Julia Burke ’20, who will be in New York working as a PA in pediatric hematology and oncology after graduating, said she feels honored to be part of the inaugural class, adding participating in the program “was one of the best decisions I’ve made. I am blessed to have had the opportunity to work along many hard-working students and faculty.”
While their May 1 graduation ceremony could not take place, the graduates and their families look forward to watching the University’s livestreamed ceremony on May 18. “Absolutely,” Burke said, when asked if she would be watching. Montague notes that the livestream ceremony is a day before the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination required to practice as a PA, adding “but I do plan to drop in.” For 18 class members, COVID-19 interrupted their final rotations, so they will officially graduate after May 18.
Looking ahead, Burke states “we have found unique ways to stay connected throughout our academic and clinical year. I do not have any doubts that we will continue to stay in touch.” Galbraith adds, “our class will likely stay in touch as we enter professional practice because we are used to connecting via social media and technology. More importantly, I have made some lifelong friends who are now an important part of my life. We are in touch almost daily and are planning family vacations together in the future.”
Montague echoes this sentiment, “I feel more connected with my peers from the Yale PA Online Class of 2020 than I ever did with on-campus cohorts in the past. The depth of teamwork required to undertake the arduous endeavor of distance learning in medical education requires teamwork like no other. I coordinated with a tightly knit group of students on a daily, and sometimes hourly basis throughout the program. These people will be my friends for life.”
Richard Belitsky, MD, Harold W. Jockers Associate Professor of Medical Education, associate professor of psychiatry, and deputy dean for education states that that beyond the exceptional training this program has provided, “what is remarkable to me about the program is the genuine comradery that developed among the students, which I witnessed first-hand when they were on campus for Immersions.”
Reflecting, James Van Rhee, MS, PA-C, PA Online Program director and associate professor says “a lot of things stand out during their 28 months, because there were a lot of firsts. First live online class, first Immersion. If I have to pick one thing that stands out most, it’s the White Coat Ceremony—it made the program finally seem real.”
There is an odd symmetry to Yale’s campus being essentially closed on May 18, because Yale was closed on the Class of 2020’s first day of Orientation in January 2018, when a blizzard hit New Haven. The blizzard did not stop Orientation, just as COVID-19 will not prevent the PA Online Class of 2020, along with faculty and staff, from simultaneously watching the celebratory degree granting ceremony, which will recognize this pioneering program.