OHSU P.A. Program celebrates 20 years

Rob SoarsOctober 18, 2016

By Amanda Waldroupe

There is no such thing as a typical day for Rob Soans, P.A.-C. '97. 

Soans works as a physician assistant at Manzanita Urgent, Primary and Specialty Care, a family practice and urgent care clinic in Nehalem, Ore., population 271. 

The clinic is 25 miles from the nearest hospital, making Soans and his colleagues primarily responsible for the small coastal community's health needs, everything from immunizations to treating multiple, co-morbid medical conditions. 

Then there's the unexpected. "People come in with heart attacks, lacerations, fractures, you name it," Soans said. 

A member of the first graduating class of OHSU's Physician Assistant program, Soans credits the program with giving him the preparation and knowledge to be nimble and responsive in a rural setting. 

OHSU's P.A. program celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. It is among the nation's most highly-ranked and academically-rigorous programs; U.S. News & World Report ranked it fifth among 210 accredited programs in 2015. 

The 26-month program, which graduates 42 physician assistants each year, was created by legislative decree in 1995 as a way to increase access to health care, especially in rural parts of Oregon. 

Ted Ruback"When I was recruited to the start the program, we chose a mission that reflected the desire to educate physician assistants to provide primary care to medically-underserved communities," said Ted Ruback M.S., P.A., program founder. "If you look beyond the I-5 corridor, there are a lot of areas [in Oregon] that are medically underserved. It is a keystone of our mission." 

P.A. students complete 12 months of rigorous academic work, an abbreviated version of the first two years of medical school. "It's very intense, very condensed," said Pat Kenney-Moore, Ed.D., P.A.-C., the program's academic coordinator and co-founding director.

But it is the clinical rotations students complete in their last 14 months, primarily in rural and underserved areas, that is the program's hallmark. Rob Soans describes his clinical rotations as "the four-corner tour," spending time in the Oregon communities of Medford, Hood River, Ontario and Newport. 

Early on, when Ruback traveled across Oregon to create the rotations, he "really had to explain what a physician assistant was," he said. 

PA reunion 2016Now, physician assistants increasingly make up a cornerstone of Oregon's health care workforce. Approximately 600 physician assistants worked in Oregon when the program first began offering classes in 1996. That number has since nearly doubled, according to the Oregon Healthcare Workforce Institute. OHSU-educated physician assistants account for nearly a quarter of that workforce, with 40 percent working in primary care and 28 percent practicing family medicine.  

"I'd like to think that the program has had a significant impact," Ruback said. 

As access to health care expands due to the Affordable Care Act, Ruback and others say that physician assistants will become even more vital in ensuring access to primary care. 

Soans has worked along Oregon's central coast since graduating. Going through the OHSU program inspired him to work in rural Oregon and, he said, changed his life. "Being able to connect and be invited into [a patient's] world at their best and worst times has shaped who I am and how I respond to the world," Soans said. "It's been a gift."  

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Photos: Top, Rob Soars, physician assistant, in clinic. OHSU P.A. Program founder Ted Ruback speaks at the P.A. All-Alumni Reunion Banquet in August. A group of reunion attendees have fun at the reunion banquet.