NAU joins downtown Phoenix

By summer, NAU will move a few staff members into the Health Sciences Education Building now under construction near Seventh and Van Buren streets. NAU will open two programs in high demand in the health-care industry: a physician-assistant program and a physical-therapy program.

The first class of students enrolled in each program will start their course work and training in the fall.

NAU's debut on the Phoenix campus has been in the works for nearly eight years. The Flagstaff university, known for operating several satellite education centers around the state, had signed an agreement in 2004 with University of Arizona and Arizona State University to create the Phoenix campus.

The three had planned to share the campus so they could develop collaborative health-care and science programs that would, just like in a hospital, clinic or lab, complement each other and possibly lead to the launch of new areas of study.

Citing tight finances, ASU formally backed away from the agreement last spring, but NAU has stuck to it.

The first crop of students in the NAU programs will be limited.

"What we've got slated in fall of 2012 is that NAU is going to have 25 students in what will be their inaugural class of the PA (physician assistant) program," said Richard Dehn, the founding chairman of the physician-assistant department.

The physical-therapy program is accepting 24 students.

At times, the NAU students in the two programs may be in the same training sessions or seminars as the beginning medical students enrolled at the UA College of Medicine-Phoenix, said Dr. Jacqueline Chadwick, vice dean of academic affairs at UA in Phoenix.

"The building will create an environment in which the students can be mingled," Chadwick said.

Chadwick said some of the training for students in their initial years in medical, physical-therapy or physician-assistant programs is very similar. For example, students in all of those areas must learn anatomy in the first years.

Chadwick said some shared training could promote teamwork. She said this is a critical lesson for them, because at hospitals and clinics teams of professionals collaborate on diagnosis and treatment.

Physical therapists help patients of all ages restore their ability to move as painlessly as possible and prevent their conditions from worsening.

Full-time physical-therapy students at NAU complete 33 months -- less than three years -- of courses and training to graduate.

Federal statistics project that demand for physical therapists will surge within the next five years by about 30percent.

At last count, an estimated 185,500 physical-therapy jobs existed nationwide. By 2018, more than 241,700 physical-therapy jobs will open, an increase of 56,200 jobs, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

On average, a physical therapist earns $60,300 to $85,540 a year.

Students enrolled in NAU's physician-assistant program are working toward a master's-level degree, which, after they're licensed, enables them to practice medicine under the supervision of physicians and surgeons.

Dehn, the department chairman, said most patients see no obvious differences between a physician assistant and a physician. The assistant can order tests, diagnose illnesses and write prescriptions.

"Say you went into ambulatory care for a general issue and you saw a PA," Dehn said. "If they (that person) saw anything that was out of the ordinary, they would stop and run it by the physician."

Michelle DiBaise, an associate professor at NAU, said the nation is faced with a shortage of physician assistants.

Federal statistics show that an estimated 74,800 jobs for physician assistants existed nationwide in 2008, but the need will surge 39percent to 103,900 PA jobs by 2018. The average annual salary is $68,210 to $97,070.

Demand for physician assistants will be highest in rural areas, said DiBaise, who also is public-relations chairwoman for the Arizona State Association of Physician Assistants.

The NAU program at Phoenix will have a special emphasis on accepting qualified applicants who are from smaller cities in Arizona.

"Our goal also is to attract people in these small communities to come to school for a year in Phoenix and then work to get them back in their small communities," DiBaise said. "That way we can attract our Arizona residents and then get them back to serve our Arizona communities."

NAU joins downtown Phoenix