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Physician assistant studies students bring attention to profession

By Crystal Baity
ECU News Services

Greenville Mayor Pat Dunn, left, tours a physician assistant studies lab at ECU with students and Patrick Carter, interim chairman and clinical assistant professor of the department, at right. Photo by Cliff Hollis
GREENVILLE, N.C.   (Oct. 7, 2011)   —   Greenville is joining the nation Oct. 6-12 to recognize physician assistants thanks to the efforts of East Carolina University students.

ECU offers the only state-supported physician assistant studies program in North Carolina, and graduates have consistently achieved a 100 percent pass rate on state licensing exams the past three years. The program began in 1996.

To celebrate the start of National Physician Assistant Week, students organized a tour of labs and classrooms and a signed proclamation by Greenville Mayor Pat Dunn on Thursday.

It is the first time in recent memory that students rallied behind the week, including visits to J.H. Rose and North Pitt high schools to talk with juniors and seniors about the career and an information table in the brickyard on east campus Thursday afternoon.

“I think it’s really important we’re doing this,” said Melissa Ricker, a first year graduate student and external affairs chair of the PA Student Society Class of 2013.

“We think it is important to educate the youth in our community about the role of the physician assistant so that they can recognize physician assistants as reliable health care providers,” said student Elaine Kelley. “We also want to encourage students interested in medicine to gain experience in health care early on, regardless of which health profession they wish to pursue.”

The effort brings attention and recognition to health care professionals who often are the first point of contact for many patients, she said. Physician assistants work in all areas from emergency medicine to pediatrics to geriatrics. They are academically and clinically prepared to diagnose and treat disease, assist in surgery and prescribe medications with the direction of a supervising physician.

Patrick Carter, interim chairman of the physician assistant studies department in the College of Allied Health Sciences, led a tour for Dunn including a mock patient care area where students work with mannequins or simulator patients before moving to clinics, doctor’s offices and hospitals their final year. The mannequins can be programmed to produce breath and heart sounds or other scenarios for students to diagnose and treat.

As students gathered in a classroom for the proclamation signing, Carter said there is a lot of interest in the PA program. “You’re joining an exciting field and will see this field grow,” he said.

Dean Stephen Thomas, who had just returned from the inauguration of UNC President Tom Ross, said the proclamation is testimony to the importance of physician assistants in maintaining the health, wellness and quality of life of residents in the state and beyond.

“Our high quality faculty prepare outstanding students to perform a crucial primary care role, and program graduates serve our community with competence, compassion and distinction,” Thomas said.

Dunn’s background in community health education adds even greater recognition to the proclamation, he said.

Dunn is professor emeritus of health education and promotion at ECU, where she taught 34 years until her retirement in 2005. She is seeking re-election, having served as mayor of Greenville since 2007.

“Your class speaks well for what we’ve tried to do (at ECU),” said Dunn, who first arrived in Greenville as an ECU student in 1954. “When I came, the university had more students than the city had residents,” she said, adding the city has grown to about 85,000 residents and is one the fastest growing in the state. Officials are trying to build a city that is more conducive to a healthy lifestyle. “We have discovered if you build sidewalks, people will use them,” she said.    

With the town, ECU has grown into a large university producing graduates in health care fields who provide quality, affordable and accessible patient care, she said.

National PA week begins Oct. 6 because the first physician assistants in the nation graduated that day in 1967 from Duke University. Today, more than 60,000 physician assistants provide essential medical and surgical services in the United States and internationally.

To learn more about ECU’s physician assistant studies program, go to  


Contact: Crystal Baity | 252-744-3764