UNE Receives $1.5 million to develop rural physician assistant training program

A number of health care preceptors pose for a photo against a slideshow
Several Penobscot Community Health Care preceptors stand with, from left, UNE's Jennifer Gunderman-King, Toho Soma, and Micaela Maynard.

Maine’s only physician assistant (PA) program has received significant financial support from the federal government to prepare graduates for careers in rural areas, where the vital health care needs of residents are often unmet.

The Master of Science Physician Assistant (M.S.P.A.) program at the University of New England, the only program of its kind in the state, has received $1.5 million from the Primary Care Training and Enhancement (PCTE) Program of the Health Resources and Service Administration (H.R.S.A.) to establish the UNE PCTE-Rural PA Program.

The program aims to increase the number of primary care practitioners who are ready to practice in and lead the transformation of health care systems aimed at improving access, quality of care, and cost effectiveness in rural areas. Further, the newly funded program will focus on training PA students on health needs of rural, underserved populations and working within interprofessional teams to address those needs.

UNE has a long history of educating and placing its PA students and graduates in rural areas across Maine and New England and maintains strong ties with multiple rural providers and provider associations in the region.

Dennis Brown Dr.PH., M.P.H., P.A.-C., DFAAPA, director of the M.S.P.A. program at UNE, will serve as principal investigator, and UNE’s Center for Excellence in Public Health (CEPH) will oversee program management, curriculum development, and evaluation.

The UNE PCTE-Rural PA Program will build on lessons learned from a recently completed PCTE initiative — also a H.R.S.A. awarded grant — in which health professions students and practicing professionals received training in a variety of primary care and population health competencies using an interprofessional approach.

The previous grant, awarded in 2016, provided financial awards to 30 UNE PA students to complete clinical rotations at two federally qualified health centers, Penobscot Community Health Care (PCHC) and HealthReach Community Health Centers.

The grant also trained 171 other UNE students from UNE’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, College of Dental Medicine, and School of Pharmacy and 31 preceptors from the two clinics. Among PA students who participated, 73% currently work in Maine, 31% work in primary care, and 23% work in a rural area. Additionally, PCHC has hired 4 UNE PA alumni since the grant’s inception.

“Through successful partnerships with Penobscot Community Health Care and HealthReach Community Health Centers, we were able to provide PA students a longitudinal interprofessional experience in primary care based in rural and underserved Maine,” said Melanie Caldwell, M.S., PCTE project manager. “Students expressed a greater desire to work in primary care following their experiences with the PCTE program, which is wonderful for the state and aligns with UNE’s mission.”

Brown, the M.S.P.A. program director, said the latest PCTE grant will use lessons learned from the previous one to enhance preceptors’ abilities to teach UNE’s PA students — in turn creating new and distinct learning opportunities for students.

“This new program will immerse students into the uniqueness of rural primary care, medication-assisted treatment, and telehealth,” Brown remarked. “Because of the training process for PAs, they can enter the workforce immediately following graduation, licensure, and passing of the national certifying exam, which means a shorter turnaround and better-prepared clinicians who are able to meet the health care needs for rural Maine."