Despite an unsuccessful attempt in the spring, the Yale School of Medicine may move forward with its plan to create an online Physician Associate program, Medical School Deputy Dean of Education Richard Belitsky announced at a Friday town hall.
Addressing roughly 20 current students, Belitsky began by apologizing for the program’s botched first attempt last semester, stating several times that he hopes to move forward — this time, with more input from students.
This spring, the School of Medicine applied for accreditation for an online PA program by presenting it to the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant as a class size expansion of the existing residential program.
The proposed program would have awarded a Master of Medical Sciences degree to students who did the didactic portion of the roughly two-year PA course through video lectures and online discussion sections. Practical skills would have been taught during roughly two weeks spent on campus and clinical rotations in preapproved hospitals in the students’ hometowns.
But in April, the ARC-PA rejected the proposal on a technicality, stating that programs must wait four years after submitting a previous proposal before requesting an increase in class size.
Even before the official rejection, the plan was met with fury from current PA students and alumni, who felt they had not been consulted enough in the decision and also worried the online program would devalue their own degrees.
At Friday’s town hall, Belitsky said he recognized the mistakes he and other administrators had made in their first attempt.
“Some people believe our effort to mount an online program was a sign of disrespect for the profession,” Belitsky said. “I’m really sorry about that.”
He also told attendees that the wording of the rejection letter suggested that the differences between the current residential program and proposed online program were too significant for the change to be billed just as a class size expansion.
If the online plan is to move forward, the school must create a new, entirely separate program, Belitsky said. Since the ARC-PA doesn’t publicize a time frame for adjudication, it is impossible to predict when the online PA program might launch. Due to the length of the accreditation process, Fall 2017 is the earliest the program could be offered, Van Rhee said.
This new online program would be given a different name from the residential program — the word “online” will likely be included in the program name. Van Rhee and Belitsky agreed that it would have a separate program director, faculty and funding stream. Both the residential and online program would award students a Master of Medical Sciences degree, and the online program would also have the same admission requirements and similar graduation requirements as the residential program, Van Ree added.
Van Rhee said the online program could have a focus on primary care and involve a capstone project instead of a thesis.
Belitsky and Van Rhee said the online degree would also have a separate funding stream from the residential program, with funds coming entirely out of tuition. A portion of tuition revenue will go to 2U, the educational technology company that would partner with Yale to create the program. Enrollment would start at roughly 50 students so that the program can break even by the end of the first year. The aim would be to expand the program’s size in the following years.
Van Rhee said that no money earmarked for scholarships for the residential PAs will be taken away to fund the online PAs. If more money is needed, it will come from the School of Medicine and not from the PA program’s budget, Belitsky said.
But the students at the town hall said they were concerned even about the revised plans. Many of those concerns were raised during the first attempt at accreditation.
Students said they were worried about how the online degree will affect how their profession is perceived, asking repeatedly why the PA students were to be used as “guinea pigs” for the online program and why the Medical School was not considering a parallel online medical degree program. One student noted that during her rotations at Yale-New Haven Hospital, doctors and nurses audibly laughed at the idea of an online PA program.
Mark Volpe MED ’15 said that, this spring, while School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern was making grand rounds — a traditional teaching tool held every week at the medical school — a student asked him if Yale’s MD program, like its PA program, would work online. Alpern, Volpe said, scoffed at the idea of an online MD program.
In a Tuesday email to the News, Alpern said that while he is not sure if an online version of an MD program would work, an online PA program definitely has the potential to be successful and could help address the country’s shortage of well trained primary care-oriented physician assistants.
Students also raised concerns that the online program — which would allow students to do the majority of their coursework from home, but require them to come to Yale for several hands-on immersions — would not be sufficient to teach students important practical techniques.
Belitsky did not seek a formal vote or consensus from the students at the meeting, noting several times that he was there to have a “conversation,” not hold a referendum. He made clear that the goal of the meeting was to solicit feedback, but he took a brief phone call midway through the conversation and made no promise to follow the students’ opinions.
He also told students that those who are interested will have the opportunity to be involved in the planning stages of the program.
Following the town hall, Belitsky said that he is not sure exactly how further student involvement will be structured, but he said he was glad to have had the opportunity to hear what the PAs thought about the potential online program.
The PA Class of 1999 were the first at Yale to be conferred a Master in Medical Science.