Master's in the Works for Military Medics

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina and UNC’s School of Medicine are collaborating to create a physician assistant master’s degree program designed for returning military veterans with input from the U.S. Army Special Operations Command team at Fort Bragg.

The program will build on the medical experience and training that Special Forces medical sergeants receive during their service and provide opportunities for veterans who want to transfer their skills into the health care system. This collaborative effort is designed to improve health care access for North Carolinians by reducing the shortage of health care professionals in North Carolina.

BCBSNC has pledged $1.2 million over the next four years to help UNC establish the master’s curriculum and hire full-time program staff. A significant portion of the grant will provide scholarship funds through the Medical Foundation of North Carolina to assist Special Forces medical sergeants who have transitioned out of the military.

“Collaborating on creative approaches like this program will help us tackle the challenges our health care system is facing,” said Brad Wilson, BCBSNC president and CEO. “It’s a simple equation: We need more physician assistants in North Carolina, and our veterans want the jobs. When these medics return home, they’ll have the opportunity to take their experience in the field and use it to advance their careers and continue to care for patients.” Wilson is a former chair and member of the UNC System Board of Governors.

Experts say the country is facing a deepening shortage of doctors and primary care physicians. Some figures estimate that by 2020 there will be a national shortage of about 150,000 physicians, which includes a need for an additional 65,000 primary care physicians. In North Carolina, according to observers, almost 1 million people live in areas that lack enough health care professionals to effectively serve their communities. UNC hopes to create a two-year curriculum with training rotations at UNC Hospitals and free clinics across the state. The program’s training will focus on primary care to meet the needs of underserved communities in North Carolina.

Research has indicated there will be high interest and participation in the program. A 2010 national survey of Special Forces medical sergeants showed that nine out of 10 respondents wanted to pursue a career in health care outside of a military setting, with about half expressing interest in becoming PAs.

Since 2009, UNC’s medical school and the Joint Special Operations Medical Training Center at Fort Bragg have collaborated to enhance medical training, care and innovation in underserved areas of North Carolina. Their existing collaboration is expected to influence the development of the new master’s degree program, with an executive advisory board seeking input from JSOMTC.

The UNC master’s of physician assistant studies degree program, pending review and approval by the UNC System Board of Governors, is in the early planning stages and expects to enroll its first class of students in 2015.

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