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Westfield State Trustees approve two new health science programs

Westfield State Trustees approve two new health science programs

WESTFIELD, Mass., December 14, 2015 – The Westfield State University Trustees voted to approve today two new health science programs – a new Master of Science in Physician Assistant (PA) Studies program and an RN to BSN program for registered nurses.

“The forward momentum we are seeing in our health sciences will serve Westfield State well into the future and at the same time is responsive to urgent community needs,” said Elizabeth H. Preston, president, Westfield State University. “The programs will be academically robust and support workforce development while helping maintain quality health services.”

Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies

Westfield State’s Trustees voted to establish a new Master of Science in Physician Assistant (PA) Studies degree subject to approval by the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education in January 2016. If approved, it will be the only public PA program in New England.

A physician assistant is a healthcare professional who is nationally certified and state-licensed, practicing medicine on teams with physicians and other providers. There is a strong and growing market demand for PAs. Experts in the health care field project significant shortages of primary care providers, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that employment for physician assistants will grow by 38 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than average. Forbes.com named it the most promising job of 2015. The average annual salary for a PA in Western Mass is $88,000; the Massachusetts average is $103,000.

The PA program could enroll its inaugural class as early as 2017. Before enrolling students, however, a PA program must earn provisional accreditation from the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA), satisfying more than 200 standards. Westfield State’s founding PA director, Jennifer Hixon, D.H.Sc., PA-C, comes to the university with significant experience in PA education and has started one other successful PA program.

The university expects to enroll classes of 25-30 students annually and will include four faculty plus the director, a clinical coordinator, a medical director and other staff members.

“Physician Assistants are an integral part of today’s healthcare team, and there is demand for more of them. But competition for space and costs of attendance are barriers for people considering  the PA field,” said Hixon. “Westfield State’s PA program will provide an affordable path and a comprehensive, personalized program that will meet an urgent need and ensure our communities have access to quality health care.”

The physician assistant program will place a significant emphasis on inter-professional communication, intercultural competency and diversity.  A program typically requires about 24 months of study, with students spending the first year in the classroom and the second year in clinical settings. Hospitals in the region, including Baystate Health, including Noble, Wing and Franklin Medical Center have expressed support for a new PA program and have committed to host students for their clinical studies. The Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers is also interested in collaboration with our students.

Clinical rotations may include domestic or international service learning opportunities in underserved urban or rural areas. This emphasis will be unique among Massachusetts’ PA programs and is reflective of Westfield’s mission.

The Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies will become the university’s 10th graduate program and will be housed in the university’s new Science and Innovation Center scheduled to open in fall 2016.

RN to BSN Program

The Registered Nurse (RN) to Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree program is for those who already have an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN) from an accredited institution, and wish to build upon existing knowledge and skills. The university will begin accepting applicants for fall semester 2016.

The program will enable nurses to obtain a BSN in as little as 30 credits, however time to degree completion is dependent on accepted transfer credits and courses completed each semester. Currently, Westfield State has draft articulation agreements with Holyoke Community College, Greenfield Community College and Springfield Technical Community College and is in full understanding and compliance with the Commonwealth’s Nursing Education Transfer compact, which facilitates ease of transfer for graduating ADN nurses.

The BSN program will promote and adhere to the philosophy that the students are adult learners who require flexibility and are able to draw from past experience in the development of new knowledge, skills and attitudes. Coursework will be a hybrid-plus combining both classroom and online with most participation done remotely. The curriculum covers subjects including research related to evidence-based practice, patient safety, legal issues, ethical standards, technology integration, health care systems and policies. It will also allow students to receive crucial training in key areas such as communication, cultural and ethical understanding, leadership and critical thinking while also gaining knowledge in effectively managing the complex and changing landscape of today’s health care delivery systems.

 “Westfield State’s RN to BSN program will provide a competitive, affordable option for working nurses that will open doors for career progression,” said Jessica Holden, Nursing faculty and program coordinator. “A BSN can lead to admission to graduate-level nursing programs in research, consulting and teaching, or potentially a career in nursing education.”

It is anticipated that local hospitals will soon not accept ADN applicants and will not allow career advancement opportunities for current employees without advance degree.  In addition, achieving prestigious nursing designations (e.g., Magnet) require a hospital have a high percentage of baccalaureate prepared RNs.

The Massachusetts Action Coalition, made up of representatives from members of the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, Organization of Nurse Leaders and the Massachusetts Hospital Association has led statewide initiatives to support a call-to-action from the Institute of Medicine’s 2010 report “Future of Nursing:  Leading Change, Advancing Health.”  One of these initiatives is to increase the number of BSN prepared nurses to 80% by 2020.   Baystate Noble Hospital’s current workforce is made up of less than 50 percent BSN prepared RNs.  Baystate is actively promoting and encouraging professional development and advanced degrees offering financial compensation for nurses who choose to participate.

Westfield State’s nursing program is accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education and the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Nursing.

Visit Westfield State's Division of Graduate and Continuing Education website for updates and information.