Mississippi College

First Physician Assistants at Mississippi College Graduating December 20

December 9, 2013

Mississippi College’s initial class of 29 physician assistants is on track to graduate December 20, and many will soon go to work in the medically underserved Magnolia State.

Based at the Baptist Healthplex, the two-and one-half year program proved rigorous and time consuming, but the graduate students say they’re well prepared to join a profession in big demand nationwide.

Working with the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, federal clinics and other medical facilities in the region, Mississippi College’s program began classes in May 2011. Members of the Class of 2013 are believers in the MC program that’s unique in Mississippi.

“This gives me a broad-based skills set,” said physician assistant student Hannah Clark, 26, of Pearl. “This gives me an abundance of options.”

After the first 15 months taking classes, spending time in labs and examination rooms at the Healthplex in Clinton, the students tackled healthcare duties in clinical settings across Mississippi and nearby states.

The MC graduate students will enter a profession that continues to grow amid the passage of the federal Affordable Care Act. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates a 30 percent job growth for PA graduates between 2010 and 2020. “Money Magazine” rates physician assistants as one of America’s top ten jobs based on demand. The average salary of more than $86,000 is attractive, but physician assistant students at Mississippi College say it’s more about helping others.

“I will practice family medicine in an underserved area,” says Latoya Bullock, 31, a Tylertown native who presently lives in Clinton. “I like the challenge of the job.”

A 2004 Alcorn State University biology graduate, Latoya worked as a case manager for four years with the Walthall County Adolescent Offender Program until enrolling in PA classes at Mississippi College. Her mother’s career path was a major influence before she joined the healthcare profession.

“My mom was a nurse for 19 years in geriatrics,” Bullock said. “She was my biggest motivator.” Her mother also introduced her to a friend working as a physician assistant, and their conversations helped convince Latoya. “This is what I want to do.”

Bullock’s clinical experiences led her in recent months to work at a family health center in Yazoo City, spend time in internal medicine at Beecham Hospital in Magnolia and take on assignments at three Jackson hospitals. As a physician assistant student she’s handled routine diagnostic, therapeutic and preventative health services, given physical exams, administered blood testing and wrote prescriptions, all under the supervision of physicians.

Physician assistants perform about 85 percent of the duties of physicians, whether it’s examining patients, diagnosing injuries or assisting in surgeries, reports show.

“I always wanted to go into medicine,” said Gavin Nowell, 27, who earned his bachelor’s degree in biology/medical sciences from Mississippi College in 2007. By becoming a physician assistant, he said he would be well trained with a diversity of skills.

Gavin served as an emergency room technician at St. Dominic Hospital in Jackson for more than three years before entering MC’s physician assistant program in 2011.

Many of Mississippi College’s first wave of PA graduates will take jobs in a state with vast healthcare needs. Mississippi’s rate of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and teen-age pregnancies are the worst in the nation. The Association of American Medical Colleges reports a national shortage of 90,000 physicians by 2020.

Physician assistant graduates are helping fill the gap. About 37 percent of PA graduates are working in America’s medically underserved counties.

Courtney Wright, 28, a Louisiana native who lives in Jackson, first became familiar with physician assistants in the Bayou State. She’s giving high marks to her Mississippi College professors as they get her ready for graduation day and national physician assistant exams in a few weeks. “The professors have all been great.”

The national physician assistant exam isn’t easy. On computers, students are asked 300 questions in five hours. But MC students say they will be ready to pass the test and pursue their dreams.

“This is an investment, and hopefully it will pay off,” said physician assistant student Bethany Faison. A 2009 Auburn University graduate, the Jackson resident got ready for the PA program by receiving her master’s in medical sciences at Mississippi College in 2011.

Physician Assistant Studies Department Chairman Dr. Bob Philpot believes the university’s first 29 PA graduates will have a bright future. “I am sure that this class will make a permanent impression on the medical community and the citizens of Mississippi.”

The Mississippi College program currently enrolls 90 students. It’s a tight-knit medical family of students, faculty and staff that works hard. Said Philpot: “I think I am most proud of the way that they have helped each other succeed.”

Physician Assistant  Department medical director Dr. Rod Cutrer is equally impressed with the first class.

When interviews with prospective students began three years ago, MC leaders wanted candidates who were "very intelligent, have a great work ethic that reflected those virtues held dear to Mississippi College along with a large dose of humility mixed into their very heart and soul,'' Cutrer said. "We struck gold with this class!.''
An MC graduate and longtime physician, he estimates at least two-thirds of the December graduates will work in Mississippi. 
The state's entire medical community deserves a great deal of thanks, Cuter said, for their support to help make the vibrant program a reality on the Clinton campus.

For more information, contact Dr. Bob Philpot at 601.925.7370 or Philpot@mc.edu.

Photo: Five of the first 29 Mississippi College physician assistant students to graduate on December 20, 2013 are: Gavin Nowell of Brandon, Latoya Bullock of Clinton, Bethany Faison of Jackson, Hannah Clark of Pearl and Courtney Wright of Jackson. PA programs nationwide train professionals to work in healthcare fields under the supervision of physicians.

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