Ten Years On, JWU's PA Program Is Going Strong

Does Vitamin D reduce the development of dementia? Which therapy is more effective for adolescents with PTSD? Can an AI-aided healthcare systems combat provider burnout?

From exploring sports injuries to skin lesions, from Borderline Personality Disorder to cancer and from diabetes to spinal cord injuries, students in Johnson & Wales University’s Physician Assistant Studies program explored treatment options and their effectiveness with a goal of educating others on what works and what doesn’t.

Humanistic, patient-centered care is the mission of JWU’s PA program, and that mission prevailed at the program’s Scholarship Day in late February, when 33 M.S.P.A.S. candidates preparing to graduate in the 2024 cohort presented their scholarly research.

several white-coated PA students explain their poster projects while Scholarship Day guests listen
JWU Physician Assistant students take turns explaining their master's research projects to visitors and fellow students at 2024 PA Scholarship Day.

For the past two years, these students have been conducting rotations at hospitals and clinics around Rhode Island, gaining first-hand skills at family medicine, internal medicine, pediatric medicine, women’s health, emergency medicine, behavior & mental health and surgery. Elective rotations have included specializations ranging from oncology to dermatology to cardiology to orthopedics to palliative care, and PA Scholarship Day revealed each student’s desire to identify the best possible treatments for patients they had encountered in their studies.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of JWU’s PA program, so we wanted to highlight some of the projects, learn more about the students behind them and hear from Center for Physician Studies Director Thomas Meehan about the program’s impact.

Aris Degaitas ’22, ’24 M.S.P.A.S. Candidate

Aris’ Journey to the PA Program

Aris knew since high school that she wanted to be a PA. A native Rhode Islander, she wanted to stay local during her studies so she could help out at her father’s diner, John’s New York System Restaurant, so she set out to explore the two Rhode Island institutions in the state with PA programs. When visiting Johnson & Wales, she was immediately impressed, and her future was decided.

“The Bowen Center is beautiful, and I really appreciated how updated it was, with stocked labs,” says Aris. “And JWU’s cadaver lab is both huge and really rare to come by at some PA schools!”

She entered JWU as a Health Sciences major but switched to the Biology program after discovering she wanted to be more involved with science labs. Experiencing the faculty in both programs gave Aris important insight into what it would be like to be a graduate student at JWU. “I knew my undergrad professors were great, so I knew the PA profs were going to be elite as well. JWU is a great school with smart people.”

PA student Aris Degaitas, left, is captured in a candid photo at 2024 PA Scholarship Day
PA student Aris Degaitas, left, is captured in a candid photo at 2024 PA Scholarship Day.


As for her transition into the PA program, she felt it was pretty seamless. “The professors, especially Dr. Dimos and Dr. Rosler, were fantastic about helping me through the process of readying for the PA program.”

Aris knew she needed a minimum of 250 patient care hours to be accepted into the PA program, and she earned them as an undergrad, working as an EMT for a private ambulance company as well as a pharmacy tech at CVS. When the world lay low during the COVID pandemic, Aris stepped up to the frontlines, gaining experience administering vaccines and caring for patients.

She found JWU’s PA program an overall “great place to be,” from supportive faculty to facilities that promote learning.

“The PA building is new, and I love having space for just us without distractions; we always knew who was in the building, and we always have a safe space with good study areas,” she shares. “The cadaver lab has been so great for dissecting and learnings skills hands-on. Getting to identify structures and muscles is a unique learning experience that not everyone gets to have in PA school," she says.

"Plus, if we end up in a rotation learning cardiology, we always have access to the lab to help. We can take apart the heart and understand it that way.”

What Her PA Experience Was Like

Aris credits JWU’s PA program with learning to provide effective patient interviews. “At JWU, you learn a structured way so you remember details and ask important questions. And JWU’s mission puts the patient first, so you learn to be empathetic and how to work to build that trust,” she says. “Some people are skeptical of medicine or doctors or feel as if they’re not being heard, so JWU has taught how to give a good interview and get personable as well as doing physical exams.”

She loved being given the freedom by her preceptors to see patients and apply her new skills such as suturing and properly scrubbing in and out of an operating room. “Maintaining a sterile field is a crazy skill in itself; JWU helped us with that,” she says.

Aris particularly enjoyed her orthopedic rotation, where she participated assisting in surgeries and saw patients on her own in clinics. She conducted special test to see how patients’ knees or hips were doing and applied special techniques to tell if an issue was with an ACL vs. an MCL or whether a patient might be exhibiting early signs of arthritis.

“When I saw patients weeks or months or a year out from surgery, I got to see different stages of progression moving forward; how much mobility gained in that time was very impressive to me,” Aris shares. “I was thinking of my research topic, and seeing progress using the press-fit implant made me wonder if cemented implants gave same results — who was doing better? Can we do better?”

PA student Aris Degaitas poses smiling with her master's research project poster
PA student Aris Degaitas poses with her poster for her master's research project, "Which type of TKA (cemented or cementless) leads to better revision rates and better functional recovery in adult patients with osteoarthritis?"

According to her research project, surgeons should lean toward cementless press-fit knee implants to ensure better functionality for patients. “PAs serve an important role as a contributory member of the surgical team and should advocate for press-fit knee implants in collaborative decision making,” Aris’ research concluded.

What’s Next for Aris

Now, as she prepares to graduate, Aris is still narrowing her field, knowing she wants to do surgery or a subset of surgery. “I’d love a balance of two days in the OR and two days in the clinic so I can see patients and get more OR skills. Orthopedic surgery gave me taste of that balance while still working hard, putting time in and learning a lot while you’re there,” she shares.

She notes that some specialties have that balance as well, and PAs have a lot of options and can explore switching specialties. “We’re graduating with a broad base of knowledge on everything,” she explains. “I could do orthopedic surgery but then jump to OBGYN and then jump to family medicine, so I’m grateful that I could always switch out.”

“I can build trust with adult populations, who are more likely to have mistrust and bad experiences in healthcare and less likely to feel like people understand them,” she continues.

“I want to break that barrier, form those relationships and make them feel like they’re being heard and getting the best treatment options they have — ones they’re comfortable with,” concludes Aris.

Aurora DiMarco ’20, ’24 M.S.P.A.S. Candidate

Aurora’s Journey to the PA Program

“I did my undergraduate degree here at JWU, and I couldn’t imagine a more wonderful, knowledgeable and supportive place to learn and earn a degree,” says Aurora DiMarco. “The people and the school made JWU’s PA program my #1 choice, and after earning my undergraduate degree in Biology, I knew that JWU would be the right fit for me.”

What swayed her the most: “I love the small class sizes, I have built personal, lifelong relationships with professors and mentors, and I am so grateful that I found a home here in Providence."

Aurora DiMarco, center, is captured smiling while speaking with fellow PA students
Aurora DiMarco, center, is captured smiling while speaking with fellow PA students.

"My JWU professors really took the time to get to know me. They helped me to learn strategies to study and they took a personal interest in helping me through the challenging moments of my undergraduate studies," she continues. "I knew that would carry over into the PA program, and I made the right choice.”

What Her PA Experience Was Like

“It has been the most rewarding, challenging and exciting whirlwind of my life,” shares Aurora. The program’s accelerated pace meant that it has “been a sprint from the beginning,” but she’s nearing the finish lines — yet not relaxing. “I’m still devoting 100% of my focus on succeeding in my rotations, exams and my Master’s Project, so I haven’t really been able to sit back and reflect on the experience as a whole.”

“I’m so glad I decided to pursue being a PA,” she states. “So many stories come to mind just from my short time in rotations, and I can’t wait to make a positive impact on the lives of my patients.”

“I’m so deeply grateful for all of my professors, friends and classmates who have been through this journey with me,” Aurora continues. “They have been the best part of the experience for me. I’ve created lifelong friendships with my classmates and advisors that are irreplaceable and bring me a lot of joy.”

Before entering JWU’s PA program, Aurora was a certified nursing assistant (CAN) in a step-down unit for two years during the COVID19 pandemic, working mainly with adults and the geriatric population.

She had those populations in mind when formulating her PA master’s research project, seeing that smoking is the leading cause of preventable deaths worldwide and recognizing a humanistic care obligation.

“My grandfather died from smoking, and I really believe that achieving a tobacco-free future starts by evolving attitudes and treatment options to use new technologies, such as e-cigarettes, to empower people with the tools and resources they need to quit,” Aurora explains. “It struck me as a hugely interesting and impactful topic of research.”

She researched the potential smoking reduction and cessation applications of nicotine electronic cigarettes compared to other nicotine replacement therapy products and smoking cessation aids in adult smokers, and her conclusions suggest that e-cigarettes show promise as a viable clinical treatment for dependent smokers.

PA student Aurora DiMarco poses next to the poster for her master's research project
Aurora DiMarco poses with the poster for her master's research project, "In adults attempting to quit smoking cigarettes, do e-cigarettes increase the likelihood of smoking reduction / cessation compared to other smoking cessation aids?"

“I went into the project without bias, but the results are certainly encouraging,” she continues. “My primary goal was to thoroughly explore electronic cigarettes as a stigma-free care option for smoking cessation, and I hope that my research can be used as a platform for further studies on the topic.”

As for JWU’s PA program itself, Aurora calls her experience “incredible.”

“I’m really grateful for the wonderful mentors and professors that prepared me so well to work with patients and be successful in a clinical setting. I firmly believe that the PA building and patient care lab, the numerous stations and exam tables, and all of our opportunities to practice physical exam skills were key to my comfort and ability to work with patients during my rotations.”

“The skill check-offs and Objective Structured Clinical Exams (OSCEs), where we go to Brown Medical School and interact with standardized patients, were another perfect example of how the JWU PA program provides real-world opportunities to apply the skills we learn," adds Aurora.

"These skills have helped me tremendously on my rotations, and I was complimented multiple times on my ability to take a [patient’s] history!”

What’s Next for Aurora

Aurora’s dream job after graduating from JWU’s PA program is to work in both the inpatient and the outpatient setting.

“I have enjoyed all of my rotations so far, and while my mind remains open to different specialties, I can’t wait to make an impact on the lives of my patients,” Aurora shares.

“I have had so many incredible experiences in my rotations. Inpatient Cardiology and outpatient Behavioral Health stand out as highlights where I was able to make an impact, work with memorable preceptors, and imagine myself working there in the long term.”

“I am open to new opportunities, and most of all, I want my patients to be able to come to me and feel as though they will never be judged or turned away,” she states.

Impact of JWU Physician Assistant Studies

Since the Physician Assistant Studies program launched in 2014, 256 out of 264 matriculants have graduated, ensuring a 97% graduation rate the program.

PAs need to take and pass the Physician Assistant National Certifying Examination (PANCE), and JWU PA students have an exemplary PANCE record. Ninety-eight percent of JWU PA students pass on their first attempt, and 100% ultimately pass the exam on the second attempt, according to Center for Physician Assistant Studies Thomas Meehan.

Meehan, who holds a B.S. in biochemistry, an M.S.P.A.S. from Baylor College of Medicine and a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology, is committed to bringing JWU’s PA program through accreditation as well as innovating the program to produce the most qualified PA graduates. He is passionate about diversity in healthcare and believes in student-centered education. He has provided expertise about the role of PAs in the future of healthcare, including at the Fall 2022 Providence Business News healthcare summit.

When JWU’s program began a decade ago, there were 300 certified PAs in Rhode Island. Just eight years later, this number had doubled to 604.

“While not all due to the JWU program, being the first program in the state has raised the profile of the profession in the state,” notes Meehan.

“I am most proud of the rigor of the program producing high-quality PAs that are at the same time rooted in humanistic patient-centered care,” Meehan states. “Our graduates are sought after in the state and the region.”

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