With PAs going up in space, it begs the question: What exactly is a Physician Assistant?

By Austin Robinson
CHS Contributor

Hayley Arceneaux’s story is one of hope, perseverance, and firsts.

Haven't heard of her? At 29 years old, Hayley is breaking boundaries as the youngest traveler beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. Inspiration4 will be the first all-civilian space mission, launching Sept. 15 from the Kennedy Space Center. Hayley is also breaking boundaries by being the first person with a prosthetic, as well as the first pediatric cancer survivor, to venture into low Earth orbit. To top it off, she will be the first physician assistant in space, serving as Chief Medical Officer for the mission.

When she’s not training to go where no physician assistant has gone before, Hayley supports children with leukemia and lymphoma at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.

Here in the College of Health Sciences at the University of Kentucky, we are home to one of the very first physician assistant programs. So it begs the question: What exactly is a physician assistant? What does a physician assistant do? And why does it matter that one is going to space?

We decided to ask DeShana Collett, PhD, PA-C, associate professor in the Department of Physician Assistant Studies, to help us answer a few questions:

CHS: What is a physician assistant?

Collett: Physician assistants (PAs) are medical professionals who often serve as a gatekeeper for primary care. The modern PA came about as a means for helping overburdened military doctors, but the roots can be traced all the way back to village healers. PAs work under or with a physician to help diagnose and treat the needs of people from pediatrics to end-of-life care. We help improve and increase access to health care.

CHS: Why should someone consider the program at UK?

Collett: The PA program at UK started in 1973 and was one of the first nine in the nation. Today, we have PAs working in every state, at the NIH and CDC, and in hospitals and higher ed. The PA program at UK is a master’s in science comprised of one and a half years of in-class learning and one year of clinical, hands-on learning.

Our program has had consistent student growth and faculty stability. Uniquely, we have a strong international learning program with rotations available in various parts of Africa, Europe and Mexico. We have a cadaver lab that provides hands-on learning experiences for our students and helps keep our faculty up to date, too. We also offer an innovative post-grad residency where PAs can specialize in a population and further refine their skills.

CHS: What would you say to someone considering a career as a PA?

Collett: For students who think they may be interested in pursuing a career as a PA I think it’s a great idea to shadow someone in the field for the experience to see what this job looks like. It’s also an opportunity to ask questions like, “What do you enjoy about your work? What do you wish you could have asked someone before starting your program?”

It’s also very important to find out if the program you’re looking at fits you and if you are a good fit for the program. Does this career fit your goals? How will this program help achieve your goals?

CHS: What does it mean for a physician assistant to be going to space?

Collett: Going to space is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Hayley is highlighting the profession and setting the bar for PAs. Not only does she have an amazing personal story, but she is also showing the world what PAs are capable of. She is opening new doors for the profession.

Interested in finding out more about Physician Assistant Studies? Visit us at https://www.uky.edu/chs/physician-assistant-studies