Xavier-Ochsner ‘PA’ program will be cutting edge

By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald

Changes in health care in the U.S. have placed an even higher priority on physician assistants, health care professionals who are licensed and trained to diagnose and treat illness and to prescribe medication for patients while working with a physician.

Under a new partnership beginning in January 2020 with Ochsner Health System, Xavier University of Louisiana will offer a 28-month, physician assistant (PA) program with the goal of graduating 40 physician assistants by April 2022, nearly half the current number of PA graduates in Louisiana each year.

“There is a such a huge need for PAs,” said Warner Thomas, president and CEO of Ochsner Health System. “It’s interesting that today in Louisiana, there are only about 90 PA graduates each year. Once we graduate that first class, we’re going to grow the PA pipeline in Louisiana by nearly 50 percent. That will be just the beginning, not the end.”


Hands-on clinicals

The full-time program will lead to a master’s degree in health sciences, which will include three semesters of classroom instruction followed by 16 months of clinical studies – estimated to include 2,000 hours of experience within 11 rotations in  the Ochsner Health System.

The clinical work will span a variety of specialties, including family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics, general surgery, emergency medicine, behavioral health and women’s health.

Thomas said there are about 125,000 PAs in the U.S., and that figure is expected to grow to about 170,000 “over the next decade.” Ochs­ner has 183 PAs in its health system.

“This is the beginning of many things to come,” Thomas said. “We really see this as a program that will redefine health care in this region and give us the opportunity to create a bigger pipeline of PAs. Frankly, at Ochsner, our biggest challenge today is finding enough people to come and take care of patients who want to come here and be taken care of. We’re excited to partner with Xavier.”

More collaboration to come

Dr. Anne McCall, provost of Xavier University, said the university anticipates collaborating with Ochsner “to develop a rich tissue of programs” over the next several years, and she said the year of clinical training following the coursework is key to the PA program.

“Our students will get the chance to gain hands-on experience, which will empower them,” she said. “They will receive an education that will prepare them to compete internationally, while, of course, we hope to hold them tightly (at the local level).”

The director of the new PA program will be Dr. Varsha Castro Gusman, a Xavier alumna who has worked for the last five years in the neuro critical care unit of Ochsner. She said teamwork and collaboration among health care professionals contribute to better patient outcomes.

“We have one goal in mind – to deliver high-quality care for the person – our patients, their family and our community,” Gusman said.

She said she hopes the Xavier’s PA graduates, while receiving “the opportunity of a lifetime,” will help “reduce and eliminate poor health outcomes in our community and ensure access to quality health care while enhancing the PA profession as a whole.”

Dr. Leo Seoane, chief academic officer of the Ochsner Health System, said the PA program is an extension of previous collaboration with Xavier involving about 80 pharmacy students each year.

“This opens the door for future programs,” Seoane said.

For more information or to apply to the new Xavier University and Ochsner Physician Assistant program, visit www.xula.edu/physician-assistant-program or call (504) 520-5119. 

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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