The physician assistant program that began in September at Juan F. Luis Hospital has been so successful that Barry University, the Florida school that runs the program, is already talking about extending it indefinitely and doubling its size.
Dr. Doreen Parkhurst, the associate dean and program director of Barry’s physician assistant program, talked about the program with the JFL Hospital Board Wednesday night at the board’s regular monthly meeting
Through the program, 12 graduate students on St. Croix began studying to become physician assistants. The dozen come from across the U.S., around the world, and right here in the territory – Jennifer Samuel of St. Croix and Arthurlyn Sullivan of St. Thomas.
At the end of the 28-month program, they will be certified to provide medical care under the direction of a doctor. Training includes working in the operating and the emergency rooms, reading cardiograms and X-rays, drawing blood, performing examinations, and prescribing medicine.
A 2005 federal study declared the U.S. Virgin islands a "medically under-served" area. According to Parkhurst, the study pinpointed a shortage of health care workers, a lack of education programs for health professionals, and limited opportunities for health professionals in the territory to advance their careers.
Barry University was already offering video-conferencing for its physician assistant students: the school has 57 students on its campus in Miami Shores, Fla., and another 28 at a satellite campus in St. Petersburg. The students all take the same academic classes from the same faculty members connecting through video-conferencing.
That made Barry the perfect partner to step into the Virgin Islands, Parkhurst said.
At first, the school had planned to work with Schneider Regional Medical Center on St. Thomas, she confessed, but was swayed by Dr. Robert Centeno, the JFL medical officer, to consider St. Croix.
"He made some compelling arguments," she said.
The students spend their first year in a classroom setting doing the academic work. The second year they go through hospital rotations at JFL getting indoctrinated in all the fields of medical care.
The program has already had an unforeseen payoff, she added. The school graduated a group of new physician assistants just last weekend, and three of them, who had done rotations at JFL, have applied to work as physician assistants in the Virgin Islands.
"That’s the mission, this is what we thought would happen," Parkhurst said. "But not even we thought it would happen this fast."
The dean added that, as they launched the St. Croix programs, they still considered adding a St. Thomas program. Instead, they’re now leaning towards doubling the size of the program on the big island.
Parkhurst also said the program is contracted with Juan F Luis Hospital on a three-year basis, but school officials are already planning to renegotiate, turning it into an ongoing program that would continue as long as the need does.
In other business, the hospital board:
- Approved by a split vote a new logo to represent the hospital’s vision of the future; the logo was designed by the hospital’s fundraising committee and shows the outline of St. Croix surrounded by crescent shapes in various colors representing the blue Caribbean, nature, love for humanity, and the name of the hospital. Though it was approved, it was not without detractors, who worried the graphic element lacked a clear sense of identity as a medical institution.
- Xaulanda Simmonds-Emmanuel, a communications specialist at the hospital, said it represented the future, creating a new brand to accent the hospital’s goal of becoming the most trusted family medical institution in the Caribbean. Hospital CEO Jeff Nelson said what was important was the story the hospital tells with the logo.
- Board members Depak Bansal, Wallace W. Phaire, and Carmelo Rivera voted in favor of the logo, while Chairwoman Kye Walker voted against and Joyce Heyliger abstained. After the vote, Phaire said he still thought the design "needed something," but said he voted yes out of respect for the committee’s hard work.
- Jeff Nelson gave the latest update on the hospital’s financial situation. According to Nelson, outpatient services have dropped the last two months, causing a drop in revenues. Cash flow for October was off by about $765,000, he said. While passage and eventual enactment of a bill forgiving about $50 million the hospital owed to the V.I. government will make the books look better, the action brought no new capital to the hospital – "And we need to find an injection of capital," he said. JFL still owes other vendors a total of about $28 million. While the current budget means the hospital can pay its bills going forward, it still can’t address the mountain of old debt, he said.