Jumping right into it: MEDEX Northwest Physician Assistant Program opens in Kona

  • MEDEX student James Nguyen practices taking vital signs on Chelsea Kern on the first day of class at the Kealakekua campus. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • MEDEX instructor Maggie Laufenberg, left, demonstrates medical evaluation techniques on the first day of class at the Kealakekua campus. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • MEDEX instructor Maggie Laufenberg teaches medical evaluation techniques on the first day of class at the Kealakekua campus. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • MEDEX student James Nguyen practices taking vital signs on Chelsea Kern on the first day of class at the Kealakekua campus. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

A new school in Kona opened its doors Tuesday to 17 students aspiring to become the latest medical professionals in a field that is facing critical shortages in Hawaii.

While the finishing touches are being put on the main building of the MEDEX Northwest Physician Assistant Program’s newly established campus in Kealakekua, the students marked the start of the fall quarter by gathering Tuesday morning on campus under pop-up tents as construction is finalized at the former Kaiser Permanente building in.

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Students dove into the first day of their 27-month training by learning and practicing patient physical assessment (PA).

“We’re very excited to get things rolling,” said Betty Stewart, MEDEX Kona’s site director. “It’s a new cohort of MEDEX PA students, it’s the big leap into their first year of PA education, and we’re all here at our brand new campus in Kona. We’re jumping right into it. Now that’s what I call an opening day!”

Stewart said the first day of class was the culmination of six years of planning and development. It is the first and only physician assistant school in the state. A PA practices medicine under the direction and supervision of a licensed physician.

Student James Nguyen was excited to start his training and new career path. The former U.S. Air Force medic and biology major looked comfortable and confident working with his fellow students, taking turns using assessment techniques on each other.

“I specifically like the mission to serve the underserved,” he said, explaining why he applied for the program.

Kona’s unique demographics was also another reason he was drawn to Hawaii. Although it was only his first day at the Kealakekua campus, Nguyen said he was anxious to explore the island and get to know the residents.

“When I do my (clinical) rotations in the area and get a feel for things, I will make a decision where to practice,” he said.

With the start of fall quarter classes, MEDEX Kona students and faculty finally had the opportunity to see their new campus and to meet each other onsite and in-person, though masked. They were divided into groups of no more than 10, staggered their meeting times in compliance with COVID-19 requirements and guidelines.

The focus of their time on campus will be on what is referred to as Basic Clinical Skills, or BCS. It is the only course during the fall quarter that will not be taught virtually. Leading up to Tuesday’s in-person class, the 17-student cohort spent the summer months working virtually from home amid the ongoing pandemic.

“The BCS course is necessarily a hands-on activity,” explained Stewart. “It would be difficult to do any other way.”

Stewart said it is one of the most intensive courses that students take in their first year of study, and it’s one of the most essential.

“It’s where they learn to take proper patient histories, for example, and where they learn how to perform physical exams using the proper procedures and special tests,” she said. “And it’s where we teach them how best to use their examination tools – stethoscopes, otoscopes, ophthalmoscopes, you name it.”

Students will spend their second year in clinical rotations, working with healthcare professionals around the island.

Operational since 1969, the MEDEX Northwest Physician Assistant Program was one of the founding organizations behind the contemporary physician assistant profession and is the largest civilian PA educator in the U.S. Over 2,600 people have graduated from its campuses, which in addition to Kona includes Seattle, Tacoma, Washington, Spokane, Washington and Anchorage, Alaska.

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“Bringing in a PA program is a major thing to bridge the gap,” said Stewart. “It ups the game.”

MEDEX offers a competency-based post graduate program that accepts applicants with previous healthcare experience, such as nurses, EMTs, medical assistants, athletic trainers, former military corpsmen, etc. The very diverse MEDEX students fulfill the program’s mission to improve access to primary health care as well as developing new professional roles for PAs.

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