WEST LIBERTY - The master of science in physician assistant studies at West Liberty University is off and rolling as the first class begins training in the medical field and the second class began working in the classroom and laboratory.
"So far the program has run quite well," said Allan Bedashi, department chair and program director. "I came from California three years ago to build a program and I'm very pleased at how it's grown."
Almost 600 people applied for the program, according to Bedashi. Interviews were conducted with 100 students for the 19 available seats.
For the first year in the program, students work in a classroom and laboratory atmosphere following a curriculum that encompasses all fields of clinical medicine. Teachers range from science professors to general medical internists to specialists in their fields.
When Bedashi came on board with the university in 2011 he immediately set to work coordinating the physician assistant program and recruiting students.
"It took us about three years to get the program up and running," associate professor Derrick Latos said on Wednesday.
Academic coordinator Regina Jones said the idea to begin a physician assistant program came from local doctor Howard Shackleford, who practices in Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
"He recognized that this was a need in our community," Jones said. "He utilizes and depends heavily on physician assistants in his own practice."
Other area hospitals involved in the program include Ohio Valley Medical Center, Wheeling Hospital, Reynolds Memorial Hospital and Wetzel County Hospital.
Jones and Latos said the physician assistant masters program teaches students to do medical examinations and diagnose, treat, counsel and manage patient care while working alongside doctors. In West Virginia, physician assistants can write prescriptions and assist doctors on all the job aspects of medicine.
According to Jones there were 60 accredited physician assistant programs in the United States 12 years ago. Now she said there are 130 with at least 60 more seeking accreditation. West Liberty's program is one of only three accredited in the state and the only one within the public education system.
Latos said the program currently has the highest percentage of people getting satisfactory jobs thanks to the national need for increased primary care. The U.S. Department of Labor predicted the physician assistant field will grow by 30 percent in the next 20 years, and Bedashi said the program will grow with it.
"We're looking to move into the new health sciences building by the end of the year," Bedashi said. "Within the next few years we will slowly expand the program. We'd like to see an increase in students in the class."