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Rocky Mountain College's physician assistant program is going for an advanced degree, changing from a bachelor's program to one awarding master's of science degrees.

The 22 students entering the program in July will be the first class to receive master's degrees when they graduate in September 2005, said Catherine Gemmiti, program director.

In upgrading the degree, Rocky is keeping pace with a national trend of more physician assistant programs becoming master's programs, Gemmiti said Tuesday.

A master's degree will make students even more competitive when they look for jobs.

Rocky's program, the only physician assistant school in Montana, has graduated 96 students since it began in 1996. All of those graduates have passed the national PA exam and are working as physician assistants.

Although the job market has tightened in Billings recently, demand for PAs across the country remains strong.

Most of the students in the program are from Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas and the Northwest and return to their home areas to work after graduation.

In addition to many physician assistants working in cities and towns in Montana, 12 Rocky graduates found jobs in rural areas of the state through the Montana Area Health Education Center, Gemmiti said.

The national average for starting salaries for physician assistants is $58,000, Gemmiti said. Beginning salaries are less than that in Montana.

To graduate from the master's program, students must have completed at least 63 semester credits, compared with the 51 credits that the bachelor's program requires.

Other changes include:

- Adding five weeks to the 24-month bachelor's program. Starting this year, students will begin the program in July instead of August.

- Adding classes to the curriculum, including those in epidemiology, biostatistics and a thesis research project.

- Adding a new clinical scientist position. Physician Scott Murray, who has been named to fill that job, will teach classes and work with students writing their theses.

Prospective students will not need a bachelor's degree before beginning work on a master's degree, but they still must have at least 90 semester credits, or three years' worth, of academic classes to get into the master's program.

They also need to have at least one year's experience working with patients in a related medical field, such as nursing.

Entrance requirements also now include taking the Graduate Record Exam and classes in genetics, advanced writing and medical terminology.

Because the school expected the change in physician assistant degrees, students applying for this year's incoming class knew of the additional requirements.

It wasn't difficult finding a pool of qualified candidates for the new master's program because students already had been coming to the PA program with high academic qualifications, said Rocky President Thomas Oates.

"The students are thrilled because they will be leaving with a master's of science degree," he said.

Plans for developing a master's program already were in place before the PA program was put on probation last fall by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant Inc.

To get off probation, the committee recommended that Rocky: increase funding for the physician assistant program, strengthen administration of the program, lengthen library hours, provide better meeting rooms for students and faculty and improve lighting and heating in classrooms.

Gemitti said a plan of action has been written for each recommendation and that ARC-PA accepted those plans in March. ARC-PA makes its next scheduled visit in January 2004.

Although on probation, the program remains fully accredited.

The new physician assistant degree is the first master's degree for Rocky.

Rocky is considering developing an online program for past Rocky PA graduates to upgrade to a master's degree, Gemitti said.

Physician assistants provide basic health care such as routine exams and screenings and work under the supervision of a physician.

Mary Pickett can be reached at 657-1262 or at mpickett@ billingsgazette.com.

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