Stanford launches master of science program in physician assistant studies

Students in the program will train alongside medical students in clinical care and coursework, as well as pursue an area of scholarly concentration.

- By Tracie White

Susan Fernandes

The Stanford University School of Medicine will for the first time offer a master of science program designed to train physician assistants as both clinicians and future leaders in health care.

“As health-care access improves, we need to equip medical practitioners with the skills to meet growing demand,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. “This new master of science program for physician assistants helps health-care teams navigate that complexity and provide precision health: personalized treatment when disease strikes and proactive and preventive care that keeps people from getting sick in the first place.”

To be considered for admission to the program in the fall of 2017, applications are due Nov. 1.

“This program will set itself apart from many other physician assistant programs by combining excellence in clinical training with scholarly projects that will help our graduates to become future leaders in their field,” said Charles Prober, MD, senior associate dean of medical education.

Designed for a class of 25 to 30 students, the 30-month program will emphasize training alongside medical students in coursework and clinical care. It will also require students to choose an area of scholarly concentration within one of four areas: community health, health services and policy research, clinical research or medical education.

“With the increasing emphasis on coordinated, team-based care as supported by the Affordable Care Act, it is critical that the School of Medicine be able to create an integrated, team-learning environment to educate the biomedical scientists and clinicians of the future,” said Robert Harrington, MD, professor and chair of medicine.

Rhonda Larsen

Replaces associate degree program

The master’s degree program replaces the associate degree program to train physician assistants that began in 1971 as a partnership between the School of Medicine and Foothill College, a two-year community college in Los Altos. The associate degree program will no longer be offered once its current students have graduated.

The new program is designed to meet the expanding role of PAs in today’s changing health-care environment, said Susan Fernandes, PA, clinical professor of pediatrics and of medicine.

“Today’s PAs practice in all areas of medicine,” Fernandes said. “They are leading community health centers, they are front stage in the health-care policy arena, leaders in the classroom and changing health-care delivery through innovation and research.”

The role of the PA, one of the fastest growing professions, has expanded in part due to a shortage of physicians nationwide and the need to meet the growing demands of an aging population, Fernandes said. She and Rhonda Larsen, PA, clinical assistant professor of pediatrics, worked as consultants to help design the new program.

“We are trying to educate the next generation of PA leaders,” Larsen said. “No other program sets out to do this.”

‘New direction for Stanford’

PAs treat patients as part of a health-care team, collaborating with physicians and other providers, Fernandes said. They often provide a broad range of health-care services that may include conducting physical exams, ordering and interpreting medical tests, diagnosing illnesses, developing treatment plans, prescribing medication and assisting in surgery.

We are trying to educate the next generation of PA leaders.

“This is a new direction for Stanford, which has been traditionally a very research-heavy medical school,” said Andrew Nevins, MD, clinical associate professor of medicine and medical director of the new program. “There is little training of advanced practice providers such as PAs. There is no school of nursing, no pharmacy school. This is an opportunity for Stanford to make a mark on this rapidly growing field.”

The curriculum will emphasize training in the foundational sciences during the five quarters, followed by a year of clinical clerkships. There will be clerkships in obstetrics and gynecology, internal medicine, ambulatory family medicine, pediatrics, surgery, psychiatry and emergency medicine. In addition, students will have several elective rotations that allow them to specialize in their area of interest. For example, a student interested in a career as a surgical PA can complete up to 12 weeks of clerkship in that area.

Currently there are about 150 accredited training programs nationwide for PAs, almost all master’s programs, with about 70 to 80 new programs on the horizon, Larsen said. The number of practicing PAs has grown from 14,000 in 1990 to about 100,000 today, according to the American Academy of Physician Assistants. The average salary is about $98,000 a year.

Employment of physician assistants is projected to grow 30 percent between 2014 and 2024, much faster than the average for all occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit

2023 ISSUE 1

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