It was a proud moment for Pat Hensch, PA-C (Seattle Class 19). On Aug. 18, 2011, Hensch — a MEDEX Northwest faculty member, lecturer and clinical coordinator, witnessed the graduation of the 15 members of MEDEX Alaska’s first class of physician assistants (PAs).
Hensch knows Alaska, especially the challenges of remote medicine. After she moved to Bethel in 1983, she enrolled in the MEDEX program, returning to the town for clinical training. She then worked in Bethel — considered “bush” Alaska — for 17 years. Even at her Anchorage office today, says Hensch, “I might see a moose as I look out the window.”
Knowing how PAs fit in to the world of rural and remote medicine is useful to Hensch, who sets up rotations for students in sites like Kodiak, Tok, Denali and Juneau. The students spend their first year studying in Anchorage at the University of Alaska — where the new health sciences building brings together PA students, WWAMI medical students and nursing students. They spend their second year traveling from rotation to rotation, learning from community practitioners who teach them hands-on work in family medicine, behavioral health, general surgery and emergency medicine.
Making connections with medical providers takes a lot of travel. There are very few roads in this last, vast frontier, but Hensch recently completed a “1,000-mile journey” to inspect sites; in winter, she flies. During inspections, Hensch verifies that a clinic has the resources to take on a student as well as a patient population that will show the student a variety of needs. All the sites offer something different. “In Nome, for instance, students have to hit the ground running,” says Hensch. “They’re delivering babies within weeks…it’s a great site.”
Hensch is looking forward to the expansion of the MEDEX class, slated to rise to 22 students by its third year. It means more travel to create more training slots. And it means more PAs who can practice remote medicine in places where medical personnel are very much needed.