Health and Medicine

Physician assistant students serve rural Virginia community

More than a dozen UNC-Chapel Hill students teamed up with other health care providers to help more than 1,000 patients and provide services worth more than $400,000.

Students pose for a photo outside a mobile medical clinic.

In late July, first- and second-year Physician Assistant Studies students, and two faculty mentors from the UNC School of Medicine Department of Allied Health Sciences, provided health care in rural Wise, Virginia, through the Remote Area Medical program.

The nonprofit mobile medical clinic provides free dental, vision and medical care to underserved and uninsured populations.

Carolina’s 16 PA students joined other health care practitioners and community partners to see patients and get hands-on experience across the health care spectrum, including working alongside orthopedists, dermatologists, plastic surgeons, cardiologists and dentists.

Second-year PA student Kendra Potter said the RAM experience gave her an opportunity to see what the future could hold for her as she pursues rural health care.

“I understand firsthand how underserved a rural area can be in terms of health care and medical providers,” she said. “Rural areas deserve medical providers committed not only to practicing medicine but also to the community.”

Before pursuing PA school, Potter lived and worked in a rural area near Wise. As the former head athletic trainer at the University of Virginia at Wise, Potter knows what it’s like to seek health care in a rural area.

“My family and the athletes I worked with [had] to travel at least one hour to see specialists,” she said. “I hope to be a part of advancing medical practices in these areas.”

Over two-and-a-half days, PA students and other providers saw more than 1,000 patients and provided services worth more than $400,000. Students stayed in dormitories on the campus of the University of Virginia-Wise, went to group dinners and met Virginia Governor Ralph Northam during a surprise visit.

Janelle Bludorn, PA program clinical assistant professor, said the experience allowed first-year PA students, who are finishing a year of didactic instruction to get hands-on experience before beginning clinical rotations. Importantly, it also allowed first-year students to gain perspective as they worked alongside second-year students, who will graduate in December.

“I think it was great from an educational and collegiality standpoint to have our two cohorts together,” Bludorn said. “We want to have more of these win-win opportunities where our students have an invaluable learning experience, but they’re also providing great services to patients.”

Several students had to quickly learn how to work in an environment with scarce resources to provide the best in patient care.

“You had to rely on your history, your physical examination. Sometimes it’s the basic thing of sitting down with a patient and listening,” Bludorn said. “I’m so proud to teach these students.”

Potter said she has a greater understanding of how medical providers should strive to provide patient-centered, evidence-based care to patients regardless of their backgrounds.

“Patient care starts with rapport, which begins with communication,” she said. “This also allows opportunity for patient education which also is valuable in the patient’s plan of care.”

PA program assistant professor Meg Beal credited the rich interprofessional collaboration of clinical preceptors, most of whom work for the UNC Health Care system, with their students’ success during the RAM experience.

“They’ve worked with so many great preceptors,” she said. “Their clinical experience is phenomenal, and it set up our students for a successful experience.”

The PA program hopes to be a part of the team to bring a RAM experience to North Carolina, specifically in rural areas with a shortage of health care options.

Bludorn and Beal said bringing a RAM experience to North Carolina would align with the PA program’s mission, which is rooted in rural health care — an aspect of the PA program that led Potter to apply for admission.

“I walked away from RAM with the excitement of being committed to a rural area that will appreciate and value a committed PA to the health care of their community,” Potter said. “As a member of the health care system, we cannot forget that medicine is more than diagnoses and prognoses but the opportunity to guide patients toward healthy futures.”