Phillip Eugene Jones, Ph.D., wore a white coat when he gave the keynote speech at this year’s White Coat Ceremony for students in the Master of Physician Assistant (PA) Studies Program. He also wore white trousers and white shoes – in all, a white dress Navy uniform.
“It represents my connection to the beginning of this profession,” said Dr. Jones, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Physician Assistant Studies.
UT Southwestern’s PA program that today is within the School of Health Professions began 51 years ago, which by coincidence was when Dr. Jones trained as a PA himself. Like many students in the early days of the field, he had served as a Hospital Corpsman in the U.S. Navy.
The field at that time was new. The first PA program was created at Duke University in 1965 during a physician shortage to increase access to care, especially in underserved populations. The first class consisted of four former corpsmen.
Today, PAs perform nearly all aspects of primary medical care, short of surgery: ordering tests, prescribing medicine, patient education, and so on – all under the supervision of a physician.
Third-year student Sabrina Guevara said she chose UTSW not only because she grew up in the area, but also because of what she discovered when she was researching PA programs: “There are a lot of added resources here that other programs don’t have,” such as the Simulation Center, where trainees can practice treating various diseases and conditions.
“Also, this school has people from different races, cultures, religions, and you feel as if you are part of a huge, diverse family,” said Ms. Guevara, who serves as Vice President for her class of 56 students.
That’s quite a contrast from the UT Southwestern program’s launch with just seven students in 1972. Nationwide, there were only 54 PA programs at that time.
The field has transformed demographically and academically since then, Dr. Jones told the class at the White Coat Ceremony, which took place in the summer. When he began his training, there were 55 students in his own PA class, with only one woman. (He married her, he noted.) In contrast, the newest UTSW class is 73% women.
Early programs did not require a college degree to apply, and students graduated with a certificate of completion or a bachelor’s or associate degree. Now, there are more than 300 PA programs nationwide, which require a bachelor's degree to enter and bestow a master's degree.
These days, PAs are a regular part of medical teams. But that wasn’t always the case, Dr. Jones said.
He recalled a time early in his career when his credentials were questioned. He was working at a remote clinic where a woman brought in her young son who had a gash in his forehead. She wanted to know why a doctor wasn’t handling the injury, so Dr. Jones phoned the physician on duty. The doctor told her, “I recommend that PA Jones handle the case. He has far more wound-care experience that I do.” She asked, “How can that be?” To which the physician replied, “I’m a psychiatrist.”
Dr. Jones joined UTSW in 1993 as the first Department Chair, when the PA Studies Program became a full Department. He retired in 2017.
Temple Howell-Stampley, M.D., M.B.A., who succeeded him as Chair, said the Department consistently is ranked in the top 10 or 20 in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.
“This is a very competitive program, and we’re very proud of the students who go out and serve,” she said.
During the last application period, 2,400 people applied for 60 potential spots in the 30-month master’s program, which includes 15 months of clinical rotation.
The current class cohort consists of 15 men and 41 women, led by a Department of 14 faculty and seven staff.
The program started when there was growing evidence that showed that PAs could play a critical role on the health care team, in response to the need for more primary health care services, she said.
“The fact that UTSW was one of the first PA programs in the country speaks to how forward-thinking they were then,” said David Klocko, D.M.Sc., PA-C, Associate Professor of Physician Assistant Studies and a Distinguished Teaching Professor, who administered the students’ oath at the July ceremony.
The same holds true today.