When Jessica Hoeffler set her sights on a career as a physician assistant, she doubled her challenge with a plan to specialize in cardiovascular surgery.
Not once did the determined student from Plymouth, Indiana, find reason to doubt a start-up Master of Physician Assistant Studies program at a small university in Davenport, Iowa, could help her achieve those goals.
"I walked in here the first day and said, 'This is what I want to do: I want a career in cardiovascular surgery and I want a residency,'" Hoeffler recalled of her introduction to St. Ambrose University. "And they said, 'OK. Let's do it.'"
Do it, Hoeffler and the St. Ambrose faculty most definitely did.
In December, Hoeffler was one of 29 members of SAU's first graduating class of future physician assistants. In April, she will begin a one-year surgical residency in a new program for physician assistants at the highly regarded Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.
"This is going to be a wonderful experience and I am really excited," she said.
Hoeffler and her classmates are joining one of the fastest growing professions in the United States, and one of the most fulfilling as well.
Physician assistant ranked fifth among "The Best 100 Jobs" in a recent edition of US News & World Reports. A growing shortage of medical doctors has created a need for physician assistants to affordably fill a significant gap in patient care.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the field will experience 38.4 percent job growth through 2022.
Given the demand, it's not surprising that many of the first St. Ambrose MPAS graduates received multiple job offers, most with starting salaries of $80,000 or more. A handful also received signing bonuses and a few received tuition compensation from their new employers.
Other Ambrosians entering the PA workforce include:
- Jennifer Hermanson, who, seeking a new adventure, recently began working as a neurological assistant in Anchorage, Alaska;
- Trevor Portiner, who is challenging his small-town Nebraska roots by working in internal medicine at an urban hospital in New York City;
- Courtney Schroeder, who will practice emergency room medicine in Fort Dodge, Iowa;
- And Cassie Schill, who accepted a position near the Rosebud Indian Reservation in Valentine, Nebraska, to provide emergency care and outpatient assistance at the only hospital within a 150-mile radius. She also will work in family practice and as an in-flight paramedic.
Clearly, physician assistants are in high demand, and the St. Ambrose graduating class entered the job market with the benefit of having been tested by a demanding curriculum.
The 29-month, 124-credit hour program begins with 14 months of didactic, classroom study, followed by a series of clinical experiences served under the supervision of a growing number of medical partners in real healthcare settings.
Instruction was provided by a full-time corps of St. Ambrose faculty that includes two medical doctors and four professors with MPAS degrees - all with previous working and teaching experience.
"I wasn't entirely sure how the didactic portion was going to prepare me until I got into my clinical rotations," Hoeffler confessed. "When I got there, I was like, 'Oh, I know this stuff. I am prepared to examine a patient. I am prepared to document. I am prepared to diagnose.'"
Clinical rotations comprise the final 60 credit hours. Required clerkships include family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics-gynecology, geriatrics, psychiatry, emergency medicine and general surgery.
By the time they earned their diplomas in December, the graduates had spent a total of 12,000 hours working and learning under the clinical supervision of a group of professional partners that has grown to 300-plus across 16 states.
The level of preparation the students brought from the classroom did not go unnoticed.
Schill's first clinical experience was a hospital rotation at UnityPoint Health in Rock Island, Illinois. "They had never worked with a PA student. The doctors were just floored by how strong our training was. We were able to just really rock and roll together. I think we really opened eyes about what we are taught," she said.
The program is built on a foundation of its own step-by-step preparedness, said Sandra Cassady, PhD, SAU's vice president for strategic initiatives and dean of the College of Health and Human Services.
Conceived and strategically outlined long before plans for its development were announced in May of 2012, the program had a fulltime director in place by July of that same year. Shortly afterward, an academic coordinator was hired and curricular development began. In March of 2014, the program received its provisional accreditation from the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant.
"As the third MPAS program in the state of Iowa, we wanted to make certain we were ready on Day One to provide the best possible training for our students," Cassady said of the methodical approach. "I think the feedback we have received from both our clinical partners and this group of graduates is an indication we achieved that goal."
The SAU program was one of five to which Schroeder applied prior to completing her undergraduate degree at the University of Northern Iowa. It was not the one she anticipated joining, she said - at least not until she visited and interviewed here.
"I had initially come to the interview thinking it would be good practice," she said. "To come to a school in its first year, who knows what could happen? But after we talked about all the work they had put in and how many years of experience the faculty had, I just felt like I was home."
Hoeffler's reaction was much the same.
"I remember walking out of this interview and calling my mom and saying, 'This place is awesome. I love the faculty. I love the program director. I love the facility. I think this will be a great place for me.'''
It was, of course.
"I think they are really focused on the student and student success," she said. "Other places I interviewed seemed more intent on their program doing well. St. Ambrose was really unique in that they were all about the student, what they can do to make you successful, get you jobs, for you to be marketable as a PA once you graduate.''
In pursuit of those goals, the program also was responsive to student feedback, particularly from this inaugural class.
"Obviously, being the first class, it was a lot of 'What works best?' and 'How can we make things better for the next class?''' Schill said. "They listened to us and helped us grow.
"I also think students were held to a high standard. There are people here who are dedicated enough to say, 'You are a product of what we are doing. This is where you need to be to represent us.' I think that's reflected by the people they choose to be in the program. They choose people who care."
As only the third PA program in Iowa, St. Ambrose had a pool of 300-plus applicants for the initial cohort. With its reputation already growing, the program received more than 500 applications for the incoming class that will graduate in December of 2019.
That enhanced reputation is owed in no small part to this first group of graduates, said Kerry Humes, MD, who joined the program as an instructor in 2014 and is in her first year as program director.
"They provided us with a lot of great feedback - what things were great, what things worked when they went into the field, what things needed to be shored up a little," Humes said. "In addition, they have been a great public relations team for us. They have gone out and done a great job on their rotations and I think they have helped educate the general medical community about how useful a PA can be. I think they have helped grow the program."
Hoeffler hopes to continue to grow throughout her residency at Emory. She credits her growth at St. Ambrose for the hard-earned and prestigious opportunity.
"I think the amount of confidence I was able to take into my interview is owed to the confidence I gained through the St. Ambrose MPAS program," she said. "I think that's something that really made me stand out as a candidate. I knew my stuff. They were very impressed by my goals, what I'd done and what I am planning to do. I think that speaks to my years at St. Ambrose.