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Physician assistant program celebrates pinning ceremony with inaugural class in a unique way

June 22 marked the turning of a page for Colorado Mesa University physician assistant students as they walked into health clinics throughout the country to begin the hands-on training portion of the program.

COVID-19 forced many physician assistant programs in the nation to hold virtual pinning ceremonies. CMU’s Master of Physician Assistant Studies (MPAS) faculty and staff had something different in mind. They moved the cherished milestone event into the great outdoors at one of western Colorado’s most iconic locations — the Colorado National Monument.

“My classmates and I are hiking the Colorado National Monument before we all go off and start our clinical rotations. We will now start to work with patients so it’s a really exciting time for all of us,” said CMU physician assistant student Aaron Rayford.

Physician Assistant (PA) schools around the nation widely practice pinning ceremonies to commemorate the transition between the didactic (the medical term for classroom learning) and the clinic (working with patients) phase of the program. The ceremony marks a significant accomplishment for PA students and the celebration signifies readiness for interacting and serving patients as a provider in training.

“My first rotation is at WorkPartners. I’ll be seeing some workmans’ comp patients doing orthopedic injuries. I’m excited to get my first start seeing patients,” said Rayford.

Prior to the global pandemic, CMU planned to host the program’s commemorative pinning ceremony on campus in the traditional way. When Physician Assistant Program Director Amy Bronson, EdD, engaged in her daily outdoor wellness routine an idea began to take shape.

“In times of chaos and disruption, we can choose to be frustrated with it or we can make room for innovation,” said Bronson.

Rayford said hiking Serpents Trail was a great way to celebrate the end of their didactic year. But the hike was more than just a celebratory gesture. It was a way to promote wellness in the daily lives of healthcare providers. 

In 2019 the PA program received a $1.2 million dollar grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration to strengthen the primary care workforce in rural and under-served areas of Western Colorado and promote the well-being of healthcare providers. A critical component of the grant has CMU highlighting the importance of well-being in the lives of healthcare workers and exploring ways in which the program can reduce the burnout epidemic that impacts the primary care workforce.

“The grant encourages us to help providers care for themselves as they engage in their careers in caring for others,” said Bronson. “At CMU we know that being outdoors and reconnecting with nature is important for all people when it comes to maintaining mental and physical health. By hosting our pinning ceremony in one of the most beautiful places on earth, we combined a milestone event while also communicating one of the core values as a PA program.” 

Helping providers monitor their own health means devoting resources to increasing capacity for resilience in the face of burnout. Extensive evidence indicates that burnout is a major driver of physician turnover and a major factor in providers decision to leave the medical profession. Burnout has a negative impact on many domains of medical practice, including PA student satisfaction with training, patient satisfaction with care and the healthcare professional’s career satisfaction. Increasing provider stress is highly associated with mental health challenges.

During the outdoor ceremony students listened to a talk on their headphones to prepare them for their clincals as they hiked that promoted physical, mental and emotional health in medical professionals. The celebration was a creative way to celebrate the students and their success.

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Written by Kelsey Coleman