At 50, GW SMHS Physician Assistant Program Celebrates the Maturation of a Profession as Well as a Program

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PA Program Director Karen Wright standing with Lisa Alexander

George Washington University (GW) School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS) Physician Assistant alumni returned to campus, including many from the university’s 1972 inaugural class, to celebrate the programs golden anniversary in October.

In honor of the milestone, the GW PA program hosted a series of celebratory events: social-networking activities, a panel discussion featuring former program directors and alumni, continuing medical education opportunities, an awards banquet, and a day to explore Washington, D.C. Throughout the weekend themes of health equity and critical thinking featured prominently, as did workforce issues, emerging roles for PAs, and new educational models, all highlighting a PA program whose history has been intertwined with the evolution of the PA profession.

“The GW PA program is well-recognized for its innovative approaches to education and for providing patients with highly qualified and compassionate clinicians,” said Karen Wright, PhD, director of the PA program at GW SMHS, in her remarks at the 50th Anniversary Awards dinner capping the weekend. “Our nationally ranked program has produced alumni who are leaders and change agents in PA education, the profession, clinical care, health administration, and research. Our students are mentored and encouraged to seek and accept leadership roles. Our faculty are intellectual leaders who have made substantial contributions to PA education both nationally and internationally.”

Over the past 50 years, the program has seen significant achievements. The program’s faculty and alumni have made national and international contributions to education, research, health care delivery, and the profession, and many have gone on to lead other PA programs and health systems in addition to holding leadership roles in the four major PA organizations.

The program has created innovative curricula that have transformed the conversations around social determinants of health, bias, racism, and health equity. GW is also home to the country’s first joint program for the Master of Sciences in Health Sciences and Master of Public Health degrees.

“[We’re] celebrating the 50th anniversary of one of the founding programs in this country and, therefore in the world, is really a notable accomplishment,” noted Barbara L. Bass, MD, RESD ’86, professor of surgery, Bloedorn Professor of Administrative Medicine, vice president for health affairs, dean of GW SMHS and CEO of The GW Medical Faculty Associates (GW MFA). “I know we have many students here, and current and former faculty, and alumni. It is an incredibly distinguished group to celebrate this milestone.

“That concept, of introducing PAs to the health care team,” she added, “was a brilliant decision by Dr. Piemme those many 50 years ago. To see GW’s program come to fruition now as one of the nation’s top five programs is a great honor to his legacy.”

The feature event over the weekend was the 50th Anniversary Awards Dinner. The evening served as an opportunity to pay tribute to some of the pioneers of the PA profession and of GW’s program, including Thomas Piemme, MD, Professor Emeritus of Health Care Sciences at GW SMHS, and founder of the school’s PA program; Jeffrey Heinrick, EdD, PA-C, former program director for GW’s PA program from 1998–2007; John D. Trimbath, PA ’79, a role-model clinician and through leadership positions with the Ohio Association of Physician Assistants and the American Academy of Physician Assistants; Jonathan Skillings, PA ’93, who developed a PA cardiology residency with GW and Johns Hopkins University; and Frank Slaby, PhD, professor of anatomy and cell biology at GW.

The awards presentation honored several distinguished members of the GW SMHS community. Leading off the awards this year was Meagan Lantz, a member of the PA Class of 2024, received the 2022 Terrence E. Barr Memorial Scholarship. The scholarship, awarded to a GW PA student with a strong record of service to the community, profession, and/or program, is named for Terrence Barr, a long-standing preceptor of the program and an early member of the profession who passed away in 2003. An officer in the James K. Tolton Student Society, Lantz is a co-founder and chapter lead of the Medicine in Motion student organization a national non-profit organization of health care providers whose mission is to address medical burnout through fitness, philanthropy, and interdisciplinary community building.

This year, two Jules Cahan Distinguished Teaching Awards were presented, for Niranjan “Niru” Natwerlal Jani, MD, who recently passed away; and Agata Greer, PA-C, for their sustained and impactful service to PA students. The award honors more than 30 years of unwavering support for GW’s PA students by Jules Cahan, MD ’53, BA ’49.

Sun Jani, MD/MPH ’12, director of research with Community Behavioral Health, was on hand to accept the award on behalf of her late father.

Jani served as a preceptor for SMHS PA students at his practice, Community Behavioral Health, an outpatient mental health clinic providing comprehensive psychiatric care for both children and adults.

“Dr. Jani and Community Behavioral Health were part of what I call the High Five, meaning that they were rated five of five on every student evaluation,” said Marianne Vail, PhD, MS ’95, associate program director and assistant professor of physician assistant studies. “Dr. Jani also providing housing to our students, which not only permitted students to maintain a community behavioral health, but it increased our ability to send students to other parts of the Eastern Shore.”

Greer, the second recipient of the Cahan Teaching Award, is a physician associate at Women’s Care Group working with Supriya Varma, MD, a board-certified OB-GYN at the clinic since 2019. Greer has had a significant impact on PA students rotating at the women’s health practice. As one student wrote in an evaluation of the rotation, “[Greer] has a passion for medicine and she was able to channel that passion into the PA profession.”

The final presentation of the evening was a particularly special one. It’s not often that one has the unique distinction of becoming the recipient of an award named in their honor. It happened on the PA program’s 40th anniversary, when Cahan received the Dr. Jules Cahan Distinguished Teaching Award. For the 50th celebration, Lisa Mustone Alexander, EdD ’03, MPH ’89, PA-C ’79, was presented with the newly minted Lisa Mustone Alexander Distinguished Public Service Award.

Alexander has been a fixture of GW’s PA program for four decades, as a student, faculty member, and program director. During her time at SMHS, Alexander went from studying in the school’s then-fledgling Physician Assistant Program as a member of the programs the fifth cohort, entering SMHS in 1977 — to teaching in the program and ultimately twice serving as its director.

“No one has been more committed to the GW PA program and to communities of need than Lisa Alexander. She embodies all of the qualities of a true servant leader,” Wright said.

Like many GW PA faculty, past and present, Alexander has established herself as a leader in the profession, advocating for its expanded role in the health care enterprise. In 2017, Alexander was elected to serve as president of the Physician Assistant Education Association. She has also served as president of the Physician Assistant Foundation Board of Trustees.

As a Fulbright Senior Specialist to the Rwandan Ministry of Education from 2009–10, Alexander led a feasibility study to determine whether a PA model could meet Rwanda’s extensive post-genocide health workforce needs.

And, following her retirement from GW in August 2020, she shifted gears to return to academia to serve as director of a recently established Physician Associate program at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

“I have had so many wonderful opportunities at this time in the future to serve not only this community of Washington, D.C., that I’ve come to consider as my second home, but also the wonderful opportunities bestowed upon me by the leadership of the institution,” Alexander told the audience.

“I feel very strongly about bringing people along,” she continued. “It is our responsibility to ensure we have an impact on people’s lives, to help them develop themselves to their full potential. I would encourage everyone here to reach out and touch as many people as you can throughout your wonderful career.”

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