Expanding a Diverse Workforce

Spring 2024
Christine Childers, founding director of the UArizona College of Health Sciences’ Doctor of Physical Therapy program

Christine Childers, founding director of the UArizona College of Health Sciences’ Doctor of Physical Therapy program

Access to health care services can help prevent chronic conditions, fend off diseases and allow people to live longer with a better quality of life. But approximately 3.2 million Arizonans — nearly 40% of the state’s population — live in an area with a health care shortage. Recent research shows that 1 in 5 Maricopa County residents are worried about accessing health care, and the concern is even more dire for people in rural areas. 

To address these critical care needs, the University of Arizona Health Sciences launched a new college, the College of Health Sciences, approved by the Arizona Board of Regents in June 2023. Health professions programs will begin matriculating students as early as August 2026. 

New Health Professions Programs

In the College of Health Sciences, new student programs will aim to train the next generation of health care professionals and increase access to care across Arizona’s diverse communities. 

Each of the new health professions programs will create an expanded pipeline of skilled providers to provide greater access to care for patients in Arizona’s diverse rural and urban communities. 

Expanding Access to Care 

Physician assistants, or PAs, are licensed health care professionals who contribute to the primary care workforce by practicing medicine as part of a team. U.S. News & World Report ranks physician assistant at No. 3 on its 100 Best Jobs list. 

“PAs play an important role in helping increase access to care for patients,” says Kevin Lohenry, Ph.D., PA-C, UArizona Health Sciences assistant vice president for interprofessional education and interim dean of the College of Health Sciences, where the PA program will be housed. 

Lohenry notes that physician assistants are increasingly sought to address shortages of health care providers and the maldistribution of specialists in rural areas. In Arizona, almost 95% of the state’s physician assistant workforce practice in urban settings, according to the Center for Rural Health at the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. 

The physician assistant program will be designed with an emphasis on rural primary care medicine. For example, medical Spanish will be a part of the curriculum to prepare students to serve Spanish- speaking patients throughout Arizona. 

“As we build this program, we are excited to work with community partners in recruiting students from those areas of need, preparing them to practice patient-centered, team-based medicine, and supporting their eventual return to those communities as licensed PAs,” Lohenry says. 

Training a New Quality of Professional 

Unlike some health care professions, physical therapy is not facing a major workforce shortage at the national level. However, Arizona has fewer physical therapists per 10,000 residents than the national average — and many of the state’s physical therapists are in urban areas, which does not meet the needs of Arizona’s rural communities. 

And Tucson faces an additional issue: Its population of individuals over the age of 65 is higher than the national average, resulting in additional clinical needs in the areas of cardiopulmonary care, geriatrics and neurology. Currently, there is a lack of physical therapists with advanced certification in these areas, says Christine Childers, PT, Ph.D., founding director of the Doctor of Physical Therapy program in the College of Health Sciences. 

“The goal of our program is to really tap into clinical affiliations and service learning, particularly in underserved communities, and get our students passionate and interested in serving in the communities that have a need for them,” Childers says. “We want students to be hands-on and helping people from day one.” 

Service-learning opportunities could include running an exercise program at an assisted living facility, working with after-school programs or providing riding therapy for individuals with special needs. Other experiences could include taking vital signs at a mobile health clinic or any number of interprofessional education experiences with students in any of the five UArizona Health Sciences colleges.


Physician Assistant Program

The University of Arizona Physician Assistant Program has applied for Accreditation - Provisional from the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). The University of Arizona PA Program anticipates matriculating its first class in August 2026, pending achieving Accreditation - Provisional status at the March 2026 ARC-PA meeting. Accreditation - Provisional is an accreditation status granted when the plans and resource allocation, if fully implemented as planned, of a proposed program that has not yet enrolled students appear to demonstrate the program’s ability to meet the ARC-PA standards or when a program holding Accreditation - Provisional status appears to demonstrate continued progress in complying with the standards as it prepares for the graduation of the first cohort of students.

Physical Therapy Program

Graduation from a physical therapist education program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education (CAPTE) is necessary for eligibility to sit for the licensure examination, which is required in all states. 

UArizona is seeking accreditation of a new physical therapist education program from CAPTE. The program is planning to submit an Application for Candidacy, which is the formal application required in the pre-accreditation stage, on Dec. 1, 2024. Submission of this document does not assure that the program will be granted Candidate for Accreditation status. Achievement of Candidate for Accreditation status is required prior to implementation of the professional phase of the program; therefore, no students may be enrolled in professional courses until Candidate for Accreditation status has been achieved. Further, though achievement of Candidate for Accreditation status signifies satisfactory progress toward accreditation, it does not assure that the program will be granted accreditation. 

Candidate for Accreditation is a pre-accreditation status, awarded prior to enrollment of students in the professional phase of the program, which indicates that the physical therapy education program is making satisfactory progress toward and is likely to attain full accreditation. All credits and degrees earned and issued by a program holding candidacy are considered to be from an accredited program. 

Anyone wishing to make a comment or complaint regarding the UArizona program should contact CAPTE: www.capteonline.org/complaints

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