The majority of current and recently graduated physician associates at the Yale School of Medicine are opposed to the creation of an online version of their degree, according to a poll conducted by a recent graduate of the program.

On March 10, current PA students and select alumni were informed by an email from Dean of the School of Medicine Robert Alpern that the University would be offering its first full-time online degree program for aspiring physician associates. In partnership with 2U — an educational technology company that has already collaborated with universities such as the University of North Carolina and Washington University in St. Louis — the University will award the same degrees to PA candidates who took the medical sciences course online as those who took the relevant coursework on campus in New Haven. Yale’s PA community is now launching a letter-writing campaign to prevent the new move.

“We think that such an expansion to include online education has the potential to negatively impact our school, PA education, the PA profession and patient care in general,” reads the collective statement about the new online degree. The statement was read aloud at a March 12 town hall attended by current PA students and alumni.

The message on the online PA program’s website tells viewers that the University is still in the process of planning the program’s contents, said newly admitted PA student Cameron Wilson ’17. But during the March town hall — chaired by Program Director James Van Rhee and Deputy Dean for Education Richard Belitsky ­— attendees were informed that the program would feature video recordings of the lectures, discussion sessions conducted electronically and clinical rotations that occur in a local hospital close to the student.

According to Alpern, expanding the PA program’s online presence will answer calls from the national medical community for more primary care clinicians. Currently, the Association of American Medical Colleges predicts that by 2020, there will be a 45,000-person shortage of primary care physicians.

Chandra Goff MED ’14, who conducted the poll and communicated with more than 100 respondents, expressed support for Yale’s mission to fulfill the growing demand for PAs in the United States. But she noted that an online expansion of Yale’s current program is an inappropriate way to fulfill that goal. The leading concern students voiced was that the online degree option would not give PAs adequate training.

“We are concerned that an online program, even when implemented in the best way possible, may not be able to meet the same quality as on-site education,” read the town hall statement.

Of the 107 students contacted by the News, every single one of the 28 respondents highlighted their opposition to the degree expansion. Within 24 hours, 26 had responded with lengthy emails explaining their opposition.

“If I were a new student coming into the Yale PA program this next year (and I knew about the online program), I would probably have chosen to go somewhere else,” said one student who, like many others, requested to remain anonymous in fear of repercussions from the administration.

Both Belitsky and Van Rhee were unavailable for comment.

Eight PAs said they were worried the online program would “devalue” their degree, with Goff noting that even though she already has her degree, she is worried that negative perceptions of the new online degree will make the degree she already has look less respectable.

Lindsay Novak MED ’14 said the online degree should at least be given a different name to reflect the fact that its students have received very different training. Goff agreed, stating that even though she has only just graduated, she is concerned that she already is having to defend the quality of her degree.

“This isn’t something current Yale students signed up for,” Novak said.

She added that while she recognizes the power of online education, it is unlikely that crucial elements of Yale’s current teaching structure, such as group discussions, will be successfully delivered to students enrolled in the online program.

All PA students can benefit from viewing lectures taught by faculty members who are particularly passionate about teaching, she said, but other elements, including the requirement to participate in practical training at an offsite location, will be difficult to monitor for quality.

But Alpern said the University will not sign off on training that is not of a high caliber.

A student who asked to remain anonymous to avoid reprisals noted that an increase in Yale PA graduates would not necessarily increase the number of graduates entering primary care, as the majority of Yale PA graduates enter specialty care. But Alpern said that allowing candidates in rural locations to stay at home and do their clinical training in a small rural hospital could increase the likelihood of them entering primary care.

Kristine Gauthier MED ’14 agreed with Goff’s views, but is not wholly opposed to the program. She said that it poses unique challenges that have not been tackled before and attributes the backlash to the University proposing the program without sufficiently fielding student views.

“If you are not doing your homework, what can you expect?” asked Gauthier.

The first Masters in Medical Science Degree at Yale was offered to the Class of 1999.