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University Of Dubuque First Class of PAs Graduate As Iowa's Need Grows

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The University of Dubuque's new physician assistant program is launching at a time when the state faces a looming PA shortage. But it's not clear how many of the graduates may stay in Iowa.

The first class of physicians’ assistants from the University of Dubuque graduated Friday. The new program is coming online as Iowa is facing a potential shortage of PAs. 

Twenty-three new physicians’ assistants from the University of Dubuque hope to work in emergency departments, operating rooms, community clinics and correctional facilities. Program Director Natalie Weber says the group faced some extra challenges in being the school's inaugural class of its Masters of Science in Physician Assistant Studies

"They have been our pioneers. A PA education is extremely challenging, but to be an inauguaral class takes an especially resilient and dedicated group of individuals," Weber said. 

PA Ruth Ballweg helped design the program. She says wherever they go, they’ll help fill gaps in health care access.

“We think about the right people in the right place doing the right thing at the right time. And that’s what your life will be about. And it’ll be fun for you to carve it out,” Ballweg told the new graduates. "PAs see themselves, I think, as being key not only to increasing access, being approachable and being brokers for the health care and for their patients. And that’ll be important.”

In October, University of Iowa researchers published a study projecting the state to have a shortage of PAs, with a third of them aged 50 or older. The state already doesn’t have enough primary care doctors, and PAs often step in, especially in rural areas.

Of the 23 graduates from the University of Dubuque's inaugural class, it's not clear if any of them will ultimately practice in Iowa, although some hope to stay in the surrounding area or just over the border in southwest Wisconsin. Other graduates, including some native Iowans, are planning on taking positions in Minneapolis, Chicago, Colorado, California and Washington state.

But longterm, the program may help attract more PAs to the state to help meet what researchers say is a growing need.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter