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Op-Ed: The Westfield State PA Program: Pathway to the Best Job in America

Submitted: February 17, 2016

In late January, the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education approved Westfield State University’s proposed Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies (MSPA) program.  Westfield State’s PA program will be the first public PA program not only Massachusetts but in New England.  This is good news for both our communities and regional medical providers as we will soon be educating students and providing an affordable path to what Forbes, CNN Money and others consider one of the “best jobs in America.”

Physician Assistants are an integral part of today’s healthcare team. PAs now carry out many duties once handled by doctors: They perform physical exams, diagnose illnesses, assist in surgery, order lab tests and prescribe medication. They are medical providers who are licensed to diagnose and treat illness and disease and prescribe medication for patients. PAs work in physician offices, hospitals and clinics but in collaboration with a licensed physician.

Because PAs can fill a vital role, demand is significant. The need is also great. In Massachusetts, about half of primary care doctors are not taking new patients, according to the Massachusetts Medical Society’s most recent Patient Access to Care Study. There is an influx of new patient populations with the enactment of both the Affordable Health Care Act 2010 and universal health care insurance in Massachusetts in 2008. Plus, we have an aging population and growth in chronic illnesses. As a result, the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics reports that the employment of physician assistants is expected to grow much faster than average (38 percent) for all occupations through the year 2022, ranking it among the fastest growing of occupations. Related health industries are predicted to have a 20 percent growth rate, compared to a national average growth rate of only 11 percent for all other occupations.

But the number of PA programs are limited and costs of attendance can be a barrier. At about 20 percent less than competitor programs, Westfield State’s PA program will provide an affordable option and can address critical healthcare and workforce needs especially in our own backyard as Massachusetts public higher education students tend to remain in state after graduation.

As the only public PA program in New England, Westfield State’s is unique.  The program aligns with our public mission and values and continues our commitment to diversity and community engagement. Significant emphasis will be placed on inter-professional communication, cultural competency and diversity, a key component in a state in which nearly 20 percent of the population is Latino and African-American as reported in the 2014 U.S. Census data.  Additionally, the curriculum will include academic content on addiction, a groundbreaking module that is currently generating local, state and national headlines.

Educator, administrator, and practicing physician assistant Jennifer Hixon, D.H.Sc., PA-C, is developing Westfield State’s program. Talk to any practicing PA in the region and you will likely hear, “Everybody knows Jen Hixon.” Dr. Hixon’s depth and breadth of experience in PA program development combined with a personal passion and commitment to public higher education is critical to the program’s success.

Hospitals in the region, including Baystate Health, including Noble, Wing and Franklin Medical Centers, have expressed support for a new PA program and have committed to host students for their clinical studies. Baystate currently employs approximately 240 advanced practice clinicians. The Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers is also interested in collaboration with our students.

The PA program could enroll its inaugural class as early as 2017.  The program is required to seek provisional accreditation from the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) prior to enrolling students.

Westfield State is deeply committed to serving the students of Massachusetts. The Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies will be the university’s ninth graduate program and will be housed in the university’s new Science and Innovation Center scheduled to open this fall. But it is just one example of how we are continually working to develop educational initiatives that link education to community needs so that students of all academic and cultural backgrounds have access to the best opportunities – and the best jobs - available.


Ramon S. Torrecilha, Ph.D. is the president of Westfield State University.