Julie Keena and Gale Starich

PA strengthens constellation of Brenau’s health sciences programs

Jan 8, 2020
Ben McDade

Julie Keena, David Barnett and Gale StarichWith the pending addition of a Master of Science in Physician Assistant Studies slated to begin in January 2021, Brenau University continues to build on its reputation of growing and initiating new clinical-grade graduate programs over the past decade.

Gale Hansen Starich, dean of both the Sidney O. Smith Jr. Graduate School and the Ivester College of Health Sciences, says this 28-month program, with a projected cohort size of 30, not only demonstrates Brenau’s ability to launch successful, heavily accredited clinical programs, but emphasizes the university’s intent to help address the dramatic shortages that exist among these professions.

“The addition of the PA program will strengthen our already robust constellation in health sciences including occupational therapy, physical therapy and nursing, which are among the fastest growing occupations,” Starich says.

“We already have over 900 applications in progress and have received over 90 completed applications for our inaugural 30 slots,” Starich says. “As is the case with all of our students, the PAs we train will exemplify the highest level of personal and professional ethics and will advance in their profession under the college’s four pillars of evidence-based and reflective practice, contemporary scientific inquiry, clinical proficiency and humanitarian altruism.”
According to federal government labor statistics, some of the fastest growing occupations relate to OT, PT, nursing and PA. Physician assistants are fifth among the top 20 occupations with the highest percent change of employment between 2016 and 2026. With a current growth rate of 37%, Brenau’s program will help to meet the increasing demand for physician assistants. The Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2018 indicated the program is attractive because of its return on investment for students, with a 2016 median pay of $101,480 per year.

One of the first and most important steps in creating the new program was the recruitment of the department’s founding chair. A national search resulted in the hiring of Julie Keena.

“I am so excited to be here and to be the founding chair,” says Keena, who has a doctorate of health science from A.T. Still University. “I am especially pleased to be part of an institution that prides itself on fostering a student-centered, supportive environment that stimulates learning and that values the human dignity of our students, staff and faculty. Our classroom, lab and practical experiences will lean into these values as we prepare our students for their significant roles in the health of people in the increasingly diverse local community and global society.”

Keena was most recently assistant director of the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant, the accrediting body for PA programs including Brenau’s. Prior to that, she was the department chair and founding program chair of the PA program at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Keena said over the next year she will complete the rigorous curriculum and hire faculty, but her first priority is getting the accreditation application to the ARC-PA by March 2020. Pending accreditation, the expectation is for the first class to begin in January 2021.

“I’ve been busy getting clinical sites lined up for our students,” she says. “We have to have enough sites for our first cohort by the time of application, so it’s been a big push to get the community to commit to the program, too.”

The program will be offered in Gainesville, Georgia, at the Brenau Downtown Center. Construction is underway for the 14,844-square-foot build-out, and construction and start up costs are expected to be approximately $5 million. A variety of naming opportunities are available.

PA students will participate in a traditional on-ground day program that will include lecture and problem-based learning courses, simulation and standardized patient experiences, interprofessional education courses, clinical laboratory courses and clinical clerkship rotations.

The new program comes with top-of-the-line facilities, including a state-of-the-art anatomy laboratory already in use in the OT and PT graduate programs. A new Ivester College Health Care Simulation Center, located at the university’s Brenau East location in Gainesville, is in the latter stages of development, and a “wet” practical laboratory and three classrooms will make up the teaching spaces for the PA program on the second floor of the Brenau Downtown Center, adjacent to the anatomy laboratory. Finally, the PA department will contain the necessary clinical skill development and patient evaluation spaces to augment the clinical microbiology laboratory teaching.