UNC to train special forces vets as physician assistants

Dec. 04, 2012 @ 01:24 PM

CHAPEL HILL – During multiple deployments as a U.S. Army Special Forces medical sergeant, David Costa said he provided care for civilian children with cuts and bruises, worked to stop bleeding from gunshot wounds and prepared patients for transport.

“I’ve pretty much seen the country from one dust pile to the next,” Costa said of Afghanistan. He said he was been deployed eight times to the country or Iraq, and would “easily” do it again. He said he found the work rewarding.

He’s now a master sergeant at the Tactical Human Operations Rehabilitation and Reconditioning Program at Fort Bragg.

To build on the training of Special Forces medical sergeants like Costa, the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and the state’s largest insurer, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, announced Monday a plan to create a two-year master’s degree program. The program would prepare veteran medical sergeants to be physician assistants.

 “They deserve opportunities to continue their healing work when their military service ends, and when they get that chance, we will all benefit,” said Holden Thorp, chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill, at a news conference at the Rizzo Conference Center in Chapel Hill. 

The program would enroll its first class in 2015. It would start with about 15 students, said Dr. Amelia Drake, executive associate dean of academic programs at the UNC School of Medicine. The program needs approval from the UNC Board of Governors, and Drake said they’ll be seeking accreditation.

To help plan the curriculum and to hire full-time staff for the program, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina pledged to pay $1.2 million across the next four years. Part of the funding will be dedicated to scholarship funds.

The U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg is also expected to give input into the program’s design.

UNC system President Tom Ross emphasized the existing relationship between the public 17-school system and the military.

He spoke about an agreement reached about three years ago between UNC and the U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg.

The agreement allowed soldiers to take advantage of university programs in Chapel Hill. The system is “actively engaged” with the military, he said.

Sgt. 1st Class Eric Strand, an instructor at the Joint Special Operations Medical Training Facility at Fort Bragg, said Special Forces medical sergeants get unconventional warfare, survival, small unit tactics and language training, but they also have training in emergency, clinical, veterinary and dental care.

Strand said there are soldiers trained as medical sergeants who are approaching eligibility for retirement who have a lot of “skills and experience” to bring back to North Carolina.

Dr. Bruce Cairns, director of the N.C. Jaycee Burn Center and a professor of surgery, microbiology and immunology at the UNC School of Medicine, also said the program will help address what will be an “enormous health care provider shortage” coming as result of federal health care reform.

According to a news release, the program will include rotations at UNC Hospitals as well as at free clinics around the state. It’s planned to focus on primary care to help prepare students to meet the needs of underserved areas.

Cairns added schools can start physician assistant programs with limited infrastructure. He said he expects there will be opportunities for the new program to draw on existing resources of the university’s health programs.

Dr. Bill Roper, dean of the UNC School of Medicine and CEO of the UNC Health Care system, said training physician assistants is a “much faster” way to provide needed health care services in the state.

Brad Wilson, president of CEO of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, also said it’s a cost effective way of expanding the labor market.

He also spoke about the expected influx of people with health care coverage.

“It is a relevant and important question to ask: Are we ready?” he said.

Physician assistants provide care under the supervision of medical doctors in North Carolina. There are other physician assistant programs in the state, including at the Duke University School of Medicine in Durham, whose program originated in the mid-1960s.