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UNC-Chapel Hill Starts Physician Assistant Program With Military Veterans In Mind

Brian Strickland

Next week, UNC-Chapel Hill is launching a physician assistant program largely designed for military veterans. As the U.S. military’s drawdown plays out in a big way in North Carolina, the idea is to help troops with medical training turn their experience into jobs – and better health care.

Dave Manning provided medical support during two combat deployments in Iraq. He’s also been the sole medical provider on a Navy ship with more than 100 people. And yet after 20 years of service, "nothing I’ve done really translates over beyond basic EMT," he says.

"Trying to find something in the medical field without any credentials, without any licensure is tough," he continues. "There’s nothing out there."

Manning’s story became more common as the U.S. began winding down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some in the UNC medical community and at the state’s huge military bases saw that as a waste of highly-trained talent. Dr. Paul Chelminski is the director of UNC’s new physician assistant program. 

"The medics and the corpsmen are often very skilled in acute medical care of younger people," he says. "They're extremely skilled in trauma care if they've been deployed."

But Chelminski says there are some gaps in their ability to diagnose and manage chronic illness, which is a large part of civilian health care. UNC’s program will fill in those gaps. 

Insurance company BlueCross BlueShield of North Carolina is donating $1.2 million to help launch it and provide scholarships. BlueCross CEO Brad Wilson says the program will also help with a growing need in North Carolina as more people get insurance through the Affordable Care Act. 

"The customers who are accessing the health care system through the ACA are using more services than any other groups," he says. "Many are in need of primary care, and the physician assistant plays a key role in delivering high quality, high value health care."

The first class has 20 students, nine of whom are veterans. The program is open to students of all backgrounds.

UNC research shows many troops with medical training are more interested in becoming a physician assistant than a doctor. (Physician assistants work under the supervision of doctors but still diagnose and treat patients.) Dave Manning, who’s in the program’s first class, explains why that’s right for him. 

"As I was coming out of the military in my early 40s, I didn’t want to spend a decade training and being in school," he says. "I just wanted to get in and get out, and physician assistant is perfect for that."

The program will take students two years. Its director, Chelminski, says the first class comes in with an extraordinary amount of clinical experience compared to the national average. It’ll also be a few years older, with an average age of 33.