A Novel Approach to the Nurse Practitioner Education

A few weeks ago, I relayed a few of my sentiments about areas nurse practitioner programs could use improvement. Specifically, I compared NP and PA programs identifying 3 areas nurse practitioner programs should be more like physician assistant programs. Many of you echoed my observations and opinions. Coincidentally, after I posted the article, I ran across a university who seems to have a longstanding solution to some of the frustration NP students feel – a dual NP/PA program.

When I discovered the Nurse Practitioner and Physician Assistant Dual Track at the UC Davis Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing, I simply had to know more. Was the program a ploy to squeeze a few extra tuition dollars from NP students? Or, did it confer significant career benefits to dual NP/PA grads? Why, in an educational climate where ‘nursing’ models and ‘medical’ models of education seem to spar, had the school adopted a dual approach?

Yesterday, Virginia Hass, the UC Davis Nurse Practitioner Program Director and Interim Director for the Physician Assistant Program was gracious enough to answer my questions. A dually certified NP/PA herself, Dr. Hass offered some interesting insight into the school’s concept. Here’s a peek at our conversation.

Me: Give me a little background – what prompted the team at UC Davis to create the nurse practitioner and physician assistant dual track?

Virginia: Originally, in the early 1970’s, the UC Davis NP program was housed at UC Berkley as a joint effort. Stanford, at the time was also starting a ‘primary care associate’ program which is the equivalent of what we now call a physician assistant program. Both professions were less than 10 years old. The 70’s was a time of experimentation, if you will, so both schools came together to figure out the best way to educate NPs and PAs.

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The dual program was a collaborative effort for a number of years. Ultimately, the schools went separate ways administratively, but UC Davis decided to continue educating physician assistants as well as nurse practitioners. So, UC Davis started a PA program and continued with a collaborative aspect. Both programs were housed in the medical school and nurse practitioner students could complete requirements to obtain a certificate in both.

Me: How has the program changed since its inception?

Virginia: Around 2004, the master’s degree became mandatory for nurse practitioners as a result of changing Medicare regulations. UC Davis could no longer offer the NP education as a ‘certificate’ program, so the program transitioned to the master’s level through the creation of a new degree, ‘The Master of Science in Nursing and Healthcare Leadership’. Nurse practitioner students, however may still apply to become dually certified as physician assistants by getting an additional PA certification.

Me: What are the benefits to students of getting both a nurse practitioner and physician assistant education?

Virginia: The dual NP/PA track gives NPs more career flexibility. This plays out in two ways. First, if the NP lives in a job market that is more friendly to physician assistants, they remain competitive. Second, if the student is interested in pursuing a career in surgery, a physician assistant certification allows them to do so. In California, at least, to be a first assist as a nurse practitioner you would have to complete an RN first assist program. As a PA, first assist responsibilities are automatically part of your scope of practice. I see physician assistants as the ‘stem cells’ of the healthcare world. PAs graduate as generalists and can morph into whatever specialty they want. Nurse practitioners on the other hand, are increasingly held to a primary care population, if that is their educational focus.

Me: Are there any other ways students tell you a dual NP/PA certification helps them in their career?

Virginia: Currently, the armed services seems to be recruiting more physician assistants. There don’t seem to be as many nurse practitioner positions with the military so in our current class we have a few students seeking dual certification for that reason.

Me: How does the program work? What additional requirements and time commitment are involved as opposed to earning an NP degree alone?

Virginia: To graduate from the dual NP/PA track, students must complete an additional quarter of coursework as well as 870 additional clinical hours. The dual program does not take significantly more time to complete as NP/PA track students do clinicals five days a week whereas many NP students choose to do clinicals just three days a week so they can maintain concurrent employment.

Me: What advice would you give to students interested in the program to help make them more competitive applicants?

Virginia: Students should have a clear focus as to why and how they think they will use the dual degree in their career. How will it benefit them?

Me: Is there anything else you feel students should know about the UC Davis Nurse Practitioner and Physician Assistant Dual Track Degree Program?

Virginia: The education of nurse practitioners and physician assistants together is an inter-professional collaboration and brings richness to the classroom. Our classes have incredible cognitive diversity and geographic diversity. We have students who have worked as critical care nurses for 15 years, OR nurses, international graduates who have worked as physicians in other countries and even veterinarians. We are able to draw on the strengths of these varied backgrounds bringing them into the classroom.

A big ‘Thank You’ to Dr. Virginia Hass for taking the time to speak with me in depth about the dual NP/PA at UC Davis.

Would you consider a dual nurse practitioner/physician assistant track?


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