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UW Graduates New Physician Assistants In Spokane Class

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

Students will soon be returning to the region’s K-12 schools and universities. But just as they’re beginning a new academic year, another group of students is finishing its work. About 30 new physician assistants graduated today [Thursday] at Gonzaga University.

This was the 21st class of physician assistants trained by the University of Washington in Spokane. The program is called MedEx Northwest. Because of the UW's medical partnership with Gonzaga, the commencement ceremony was held in a ballroom at the Hemmingson Center.

“I want to be one of the first ones to congratulate you on the accomplishment of being able to endure such a rigorous program and to make it to this day, so congratulations," said Terry Scott, the MedEx program director.

The UW’s physician assistant program is the second oldest in the nation. It was created in the late 1960s to serve veterans with medical specialities who wanted to continue their service in civilian life. Physician assistants, or PAs, perform many of the same functions as medical doctors. They can prescribe drugs, for example. And many rural communities that are unable to recruit doctors are turning to PAs instead.

And, as PAs increasingly find themselves on the front lines of medicine, they’re also performing duties done by other health professionals. That was a point made by the commencement guest speaker, psychiatrist Jacob Pounds of Kaiser Permanente. He called physician assistants his bouncers at the bar.

“You’re going to see people who are acutely suicidal, acutely depressed, acutely psychotic, acutely manic. People with those types of illnesses often don’t have the insight to show up to the outpatient psychiatry clinic," Pounds said. "So they see you guys first and that’s what I really appreciate. Even though maybe you’re not going into a psychiatry field, you’re going to see psychiatric patients non-stop and be expected to at least start at least initial treatment or initial triage.”

The new graduates need to pass a licensing test they’ll take in the next few weeks before they can start their clinical careers. Eleven of the 30 students who graduated Thursday are from Spokane, two from Coeur d’Alene.