Physician assistant program elevated to department and relocated

Students in Murdoch Building lecture hall


Pitt’s 10-year-old physician assistant program went through several transformations over the summer — more students, new location and even an official designation as a department of the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences.

Faculty, staff and students are probably most excited about finally moving onto the Oakland campus from their previous outpost at the University of Pittsburgh Applied Research Center in Harmar. The planning process for the move took two years.

Patient exam room“Those who have been with us the longest are excited because they were happy to be moving to campus and knew of the opportunities that it would bring,” said David Beck, a founding faculty member and current director of the program. “The ones who are very new to our team — we’ve hired several within the past year — either came from within the University, or they identify Oakland as Pitt, and so this is more at the heart of what they signed up for.”

In mid-August, the Department of Physician Assistant Studies, a two-year master’s degree program, became the first tenant in the new Murdoch Office Building on Forbes Avenue.

Beck said the U-PARC location was selected early on because they needed space for 48 students in a classroom. With only six months between when the program was accredited and when it kicked off, “some of the places where they had tentatively planned fell through.”

And while they’ve tried to keep the students connected to the main campus through interprofessional events and a yearly forum at Scaife Hall, “this will make access to those things a lot easier,” Beck said. “But we still made sure that they attended those things. We tried to maintain that connection as best we could. Now it’s just so much easier. And we can start hosting some things and expecting people to actually come.”

Last year, Beck, who also is an assistant professor, put together a successful proposal to increase the programs accreditation from 48 to 60 students. The new space will allow the department to have all 60 of its students “at one place at one time.”

The students all do one year of classroom work, starting in January. In their second year, they do clinical rotations, returning to the classroom every five weeks for testing, and a new class of 60 starts the classroom section. Beck said the January to December schedule allows Pitt grads to get a jump on their peers at other area colleges when it comes to finding a job.

The Department of P.A. Studies occupies the entire second floor of the Murdoch Building. The building is owned by Murland Associates, but Pitt has contracted to lease 81,000 of the building’s 95,000 square feet for $2.3 million annually. CVS is scheduled to move from its current location to the first floor of the eight-story building sometime this fall.

The new space includes a lecture hall and clinical skills lab large enough to accommodate the 60-person class, along with student study areas, a lounge, conference room, patient exam rooms and areas for the seven faculty and three staff members.

The need for physician assistants shows no sign of slowing down, Beck said, citing Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that predict around a 36 percent growth during the next 10 years.

“In the 10 years that we’ve been here, probably 100 more programs have popped up around the country because the health care system is changing and the economics of it are changing,” he said. “We are a more deployable workforce compared to physicians. One physician could have multiple P.A.s working for them, and that can maximize their impact on a community, especially the underserved.”

Beck said that the P.A. program is “at a point where we have too many applicants for seats. We have about a 10 to one ratio in a bad year.”

Becoming a department, Beck said, means the dean and the school “saw the vision of the future being something where we have a strong role in the success of our school moving forward, and they wanted to solidify that.”

“Establishing the new department will further the growth and success of the existing master’s program and will demonstrate greater institutional support to alumni, current students, faculty, staff, community partners, and future students as well as funding sources,” Provost Ann Cudd said in a statement.

“It is generally agreed that the move from ‘program’ to ‘department’ is a step up in academic status,” Anthony Delitto, dean of SHRS, said in a statement. “In successfully moving to departmental status, the Physician Assistant Studies program demonstrated that they offered more than a collection of courses leading to a degree. In the proposal, there was ample evidence that, in collaboration with SHRS and other schools of the Health Sciences, the faculty has the potential to contribute sufficiently to all three legs of the academic stool, namely, research, education and service.”

The P.A. program has always had the resources it needed to become a department, Beck said, and it had a seat at the table in school-level discussions. But that could have changed depending on who the dean of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences was.

“Now, if (Dean Delitto) leaves tomorrow, we have a locked in place at the table,” he said. “And I think that’s the most strategic part of this.”

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 412-648-4294.


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