Light & Verity

Accrediting snag for online degree program

Yale wants to teach physician associates online. But regulators say they’ll have to wait.

Celia Poirier

Celia Poirier

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In March, the medical school announced its intention to launch an online physician associate (PA) degree program. A month later, though, the profession’s accrediting agency turned it down. Although some students and alumni had expressed opposition to the plan, the reason for the rejection was technical rather than substantive: the school isn’t eligible to expand its enrollment for another three years. But with online degree programs popping up around the country and a countrywide shortage of primary care providers, that probably isn’t the end of the story.

Also known as physician assistants, PAs are medical professionals with three academic years’ graduate training. Supervised by physicians, they can legally prescribe medications, and they can make many decisions independently. Many work in underserved areas. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the need for over 33,000 new PAs by 2022.

Yale’s plan was for students to complete most coursework online, via videos, live classes, and other digital materials. Students would still visit New Haven for experiences like anatomy lab. As with the existing PA program, students would face competitive admission, pay full tuition, and earn credit over 28 months. As for hands-on clinical clerkships, students would complete those in clinical settings close to home (one sticking point for alumni who were skeptical that so many off-site rotations could be up to par). The educational technology company 2U, Inc. would help coordinate field placements, as it already does for partner schools like Georgetown, which offers an online master’s in nursing.

Yale officials told the Wall Street Journal that the program could eventually enroll a total of 360 students on campus and off; the on-campus version currently enrolls just over 100. Program director James Van Rhee declined to comment on whether the school would hire new faculty.

This isn’t Yale’s first foray into online education, or even its first online degree. That distinction goes to the School of Nursing’s Doctor of Nursing Practice degree, which graduated its first class of 14 students in May. Aimed at experienced nurses interested in research and leadership, the DNP program offers online classes coupled with on-campus intensives and a yearlong capstone project designed in partnership with Yale faculty.

After the March announcement, Chandra Goff ’14MD contacted nearly 200 PA students and alumni for their opinions. Most of the dozens who responded were opposed. They cited potential public mistrust in the quality of the degree, as well as on-campus elements they felt couldn’t be replicated from afar. They also expressed doubt about the thoroughness of the planning process. “Unlike many other subjects, learning medicine is not mostly book work,” says Goff, who read a statement summarizing students’ objections at a March 12 town hall meeting.

As it turned out, it was the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA) that put the brakes on the proposal. ARC-PA doesn’t permit schools to expand more than once in four years; they had approved an expansion at Yale in 2014.

So will the program still come to fruition? That depends. The school could wait three more years and try again for an expansion, or it could—as ARC-PA recommended—seek approval for the online degree as a new, separate PA program. For now, Van Rhee says simply that Yale is “considering next steps in the process.”

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