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Association of American Medical Colleges Tomorrow's Doctors, Tomorrow's Cures®

Training Veterans to Be Physician Assistants

AAMC Reporter March 2013

—By Rebecca Greenberg

Starting a medical career is not an easy path for veterans. More often than not, hard-earned skills go unrecognized in the world of civilian health care. Other factors such as time and resources also get in the way. A new program at the University of North Carolina (UNC) is seeking to help returning military veterans overcome these obstacles.

Last December, UNC announced plans to create a physician assistant (PA) master’s degree program that will build on the training and experience of Army Special Forces medical sergeants. The two-year program, made possible by a $1.2 million gift from the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, will include classroom and clinical courses in primary care. Students will complete rotations at UNC hospitals and free clinics across the state. UNC expects to enroll its first class of 15 to 20 students in 2015.

“Medics with nontraditional educational backgrounds have a lot to offer with their unique professional experiences,” said Bruce Cairns, M.D., director of the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center and professor of surgery/microbiology and immunology at UNC. Cairns helped develop the program, which resulted from an ongoing partnership between the UNC medical school and the Special Operations Medical Training Center at Fort Bragg that began in 2009. He said UNC’s goal is to create an inclusive, understanding environment that provides “second-life career development for medics.”

Special Forces medics are trained to deliver medical care in high-stress, austere environments. Besides treating traumatic injuries, medics are expected to have a working knowledge of dentistry, veterinary care, public sanitation, water quality, and optometry. Medics not only are responsible for caring for fellow soldiers, but also treat entire villages in remote parts of Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

Many believe these skills will translate well in rural and underserved parts of North Carolina—an added benefit of the new PA program. “UNC is capitalizing on an untapped resource,” said Sgt. Todd Landis, a medical instructor at Fort Bragg who was actively involved in developing the PA program at UNC. “Much of North Carolina is underserved, with big gaps in health care. Our medics have had years of experience. PA school can build on that depth of knowledge.”

Cairns added, “We have a million people in our state alone who have limited access to health care professionals. [With the PA program] we were able to marry our commitment to the military with our commitment to providing quality health care and service across the state.”

Sgt. Karl Holt, another medical instructor at Fort Bragg who has collaborated with UNC, said that Special Forces medics not only bring an incredible level of experience to the table, but they also bring a great deal of passion. “[Special Forces medics] are used to thriving under stress and pressure. They are exactly the kind of individuals you want out there helping people.”

Holt, who plans on becoming a physician himself, acknowledged that UNC’s PA program is small in the scheme of things, but said if more medical institutions follow UNC’s lead by recognizing the special skills of military applicants, it would be an important step in the right direction.

Cairns agrees that UNC’s program is a small part of a much larger effort. “Our overall goal is to look at ways academic medical centers best serve the military population who have sacrificed so much over the past decade and how we can support that community, not just by providing care and cultural competence, but by providing long-term opportunities for them to reintegrate into society,” he said. “From my perspective, as a Navy veteran, it’s the least we can do.”

March 2013 Home


Col. Peter J. Benson addresses the audience

“[Special Forces medics] are used to thriving under stress and pressure. They are exactly the kind of individuals you want out there helping people.”

—Sgt. Karl Holt