The launch in January of the medical school’s inaugural physician assistant online program (PA Online) marked the first time that students not on campus could work toward a Yale degree. Forty-two students are enrolled in the initial class, in a program designed to let talented aspiring physician assistants from across the country benefit from a Yale education while staying in their home communities.

Those communities, which often are underserved, also stand to benefit because their own home-grown health professionals are considered more likely to remain and provide primary care locally.

“The goal is to contribute to the health care needs of the country,” says Robert J. Alpern, MD, dean and Ensign Professor of Medicine, “and to give more qualified applicants the opportunity to earn a Yale School of Medicine Master of Medical Science degree.”

PA Online provides 12 months of online didactic work, with cohorts of 11 to 15 students engaging frequently with each other and a School of Medicine faculty member through an interactive “Online Campus.” Sixteen months of clinical rotations then follow, predominantly in students’ home areas, including a month-long capstone research project. Mixed in are three separate weeks of on-campus immersion that include work in Yale’s simulation lab and in-person faculty lectures. During the first such week, in March, students received their ceremonial white coats.

The physician assistant field is expanding rapidly across the country, expected to grow by 37 percent between 2016 and 2026, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yale’s Physician Associate Program, based on the Yale campus, has contributed to the profession since its first students arrived in 1971. By adding PA Online, the School of Medicine now extends that reach more broadly.

PA Online’s director, James Van Rhee, MS, PA-C, associate professor of medicine, praises the quality of the inaugural students in his program, including their health care experience, which averages just over 8,000 hours of patient care.

“Compared to the national data from the Physician Assistant Education Association,” says Van Rhee, “the first cohort of online students, on average, had twice the health care experience and was five years older than the average PA program matriculating student.” Their past roles range from PharmD, to work at a clinic for homeless people, to two decades’ service as a medic on a Native American reservation in Arizona. The inaugural class includes three military veterans.