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UNC’s School of Medicine plans to create a physician assistant master’s degree program within the Department of Allied Health Sciences for veteran medical sergeants. A $1.2 million gift from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina will help the University establish a curriculum and hire full-time faculty in preparation for the accreditation process ahead.

The degree program will answer the question “When is Carolina going to get a physician assistant program?” It’s a question Lee McLean had heard since becoming chair of the Department of Allied Health Sciences, a division within the School of Medicine, 13 years ago. But, with six physician assistant programs in the state, there was no clear need for UNC to start a seventh.

In 2009 a group from the School of Medicine was invited to visit the U.S. Army Special Operations Command Team at Fort Bragg. There they observed the Special Forces Medical Sergeants – or 18 Deltas – and saw an opportunity to honor these medics who had dedicated their lives to service while addressing the shortage of medical care for the state’s underserved communities.

“When these highly trained Special Forces Medical Sergeants finish their tour of duty, no matter what they’ve done in the military, they’re not licensed to do anything in the civilian world,” McLean said. “We knew there had to be some way to recognize that kind of service.”

“We know that the majority of our Special Forces Medical Sergeants want to continue their careers in medicine to help improve the health and lives of our citizens, but many are unsure of what path to take when they transition out of the military,” said Army Special Operations Command Surgeon Colonel Peter J. Benson.

“This program gives our veterans the education and opportunity to lend their unique health-care and leadership skills to benefit citizens across North Carolina.”

When Special Forces Medical Sergeants find themselves in communities like Iraq, Pakistan or Afghanistan, they are responsible for not only the troops, but also the entire village. They become, essentially, the town doctor.

A medic might deliver a baby one day and a calf the next, parachute into a village or walk many rough miles to get there.

“They get training in veterinary skills, pediatrics, obstetrics and more. They have to perform their own labs and imaging,” McLean said. “There may be no electricity or place to clean a hypodermic needle, and still be expected to deliver the best health care.”

Many see this kind of training as a perfect fit for North Carolina communities facing a shortage of medical professionals. The ability to provide expert care away from many modern conveniences is great training to serve areas of the state that may be far from a major medical center.

Though years in the making, there are still a few more to go before students fill the chairs. Once accredited, the program plans to admit its first class in 2015.

McLean will retire in August. During the next six months, she will be working on a preliminary set of academic and admissions standards for the program and a formal request to plan a new masters degree that must be submitted to the Board of Governors this spring. She also will start to organize the documents that must be approved for national accreditation of the new program. Once a new program director is hired, that person will take over these essential tasks.

The allied health sciences department houses and administers a number of therapy and diagnostic disciplines related to medicine, offering 13 bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees, McLean said. “Our professional degree programs are all very highly ranked nationally because of the excellence of our faculty and our students, and the strong support of our medical school. This degree is a great fit for us.”

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Published February 4, 2013.