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Harding graduates first class of high-demand physician assistants

Harding University
graduated its first class of physician assistants Saturday, one of the fastest
growing professions in the nation.

The Searcy university is the only in Arkansas
to offer an accredited master’s degree program in the field. The assistants can
prescribe some drugs, assist in surgery, conduct exam, diagnose illnesses and
interpret tests under a licensed doctor. Now, as medical costs continue to
rise, experts hope the assistants can fill a needed gap in care and bring down
health care costs.

The school’s inaugural class had 16 students who completed
the 26-month program.

So far, 12 of the 16 students in Harding’s first class plan
to stay in Arkansas, said Dr.
Michael Murphy, the program’s director. He said desire to have more free time
as much as anything else played a part in becoming a physician assistant
instead of a doctor.

“Of the 72 people in this program, I could easily see
half of them going to medical school and doing well if they wanted to,”
Murphy said. “They have the grades and everything else.”

Jonna Webb, 38, had enrolled in medical school, but wanted
to spend more time with her 2-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son.

“I knew it wasn’t going to work with my family
life,” said Webb, a Clarksville-area resident.

Statistics show the median income for physician assistants
from their primary employer was $80,356 in 2006. Those who graduated in 2005
made $69,517.

Out of the 26-month program, Harding students spend about 15
months, or about 2,200 hours, in clinical settings on six-week rotations,
including emergency surgery, clinical care and geriatric care. They work under
doctors, nurse practitioners and others.

Besides giving them training, such rotations are akin to
internships, putting students in contact with doctors or other employers and
often lead to jobs. Murphy said about 75 percent of the graduating students
already have accepted jobs.

The students have the option of residencies, but most plan
to go straight into jobs, Murphy said.

“If you’ve got a physician willing to (train) someone,
it doesn’t make a lot of sense to go off and do a residency,” he said.

On the Net:

Harding University:

Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette,

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