A proposed physician assistant program at Frostburg State University aims to improve access to health care in western Maryland by finding students who want to work and live in the rural region.
The master’s program, pending approval, expects to admit 25 students per year and offer 10 clinical rotations for students as it seeks to fill a health vacuum in western Maryland, which includes Allegany, Frederick, Garrett and Washington counties.
“There is no doubt demand for the position is growing,” Elizabeth Throop, Frostburg’s provost, told the University System of Maryland Board of Regents Education Policy and Student Life committee Tuesday.
The program received preliminary approval from the committee and needs approval from the full board, the Maryland Higher Education Commission and the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant. Once approved by the state commission, the program can begin preliminarily accepting applications for the program while it goes through the accreditation process.
The program will initially be housed at Frostburg’s main campus, but after receiving a waiver from the higher education commission it plans to continue the program at the University System of Maryland at Hagerstown, which has greater access to the types of clinical experience students will be expected to complete.
Data presented by the university suggests there is potential for an average of 120 new physician assistant positions every year in Maryland. Frostburg’s program would join Towson University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore as the third physician assistant program in the state. Those programs graduated 68 students in 2016.
“The additional capacity generated by (Frostburg’s) proposed new (physician assistant) program will not eliminate the workforce gap projected for the number of (physician assistants) needed in Maryland,” the university said in its new program application. “But it will certainly help fill this gap and will most importantly address some of the most vulnerable areas in Maryland where health care provider shortages are proven to be more critical.”
The program expects to receive between 800 and 1,000 applications every year, based on applications received at other similar physician assistant programs. The first cohort could begin next summer following accreditation.
While the program anticipates hundreds of applications, it wants to focus on students who are “keyed in” to western Maryland, the administrators told the regents committee.
Health programs like this one began to be developed at Frostburg in 2013 after local health leaders approached the university for help with solving a provider shortage in the region.
Since 2010, the university has developed an undergraduate health science major, a Bachelor of Science in Nursing program for registered nurses, and a Master of Science in Nursing program with concentrations in education and administration. This fall the university will begin nurse practitioner programs.
Physician assistants are also expected to step in as rural regions like western Maryland face a physician shortage. Estimates suggest western Maryland could support 86 more primary care physicians.
Maryland requires less supervision for physician assistants from physicians than some other states. Physician assistants can prescribe medication and their charts do not need to be co-signed by a supervising physician.
This relative autonomy could help physician assistants substitute for doctors in rural communities that lack physicians.
Clarification: This story was updated to include Washington County in the western Maryland region the Frostburg program hopes to serve.