Marissa Weeks in front of the Health Sciences Center

Physician Assistant student wins fellowship to Washington, D.C.

By her own accounting, Marissa Weeks spends about 60 hours a week working to become a physician assistant. On-site clinical training in urgent care clinics, emergency rooms, and family medical practices occupies most of the time, but Weeks also must study for exams at the University of Bridgeport Physician Assistant Institute (UBPAI), where she is a second-year student.

“There’s very little time for a job or anything else,” she says.

Nonetheless, Weeks is eager to squeeze one more training program into her schedule: a trip to Washington, DC, to participate in the Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA) Student Health Policy Fellowship from September 9-12. She was one of just 14 elite PA students from across the United States to be selected for the program.

I’m really interested in being on the front lines of health care, but I’m also very interested in making sure that those who are on the front lines can practice to the highest level of their license. The way to do that is through legislation,” says Weeks. “There are some barriers.”

Physician Assistants have cared for patients for more than 50 years, when medics returned to the U.S. following the Vietnam War and were needed care for patients due to a national shortage of physicians. Yet until recently, experts say, not enough has been done to promote the PA profession among state and federal lawmakers, whose support is critical.

“I think it’s fair to say that doctors and nurses are in the front of the line for policymakers, so it’s upon us to improve the visibility of the PA profession,” says Tyler Smith, manager of governmental relations at the PAEA in Washington, DC.

That’s why in 2012 the PAEA started the Student Health Policy Fellowship. It is open to just 14 students per year, and top students like Weeks who awarded fellowships, go on to learn how to advocate and organize around issues that impact PAs, and by extension, patients.

As a fellow, for instance, Weeks will attend workshops on how to run advocacy meetings, meet with PAEA members and learn how to prepare talking points. Then she heads to Capitol Hill, where she will meet Connecticut Rep. Jim Himes, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, and Sen. Chris Murphy.

They may discuss currently hot-button issues like increasing loan limits on lower-cost federal loans for PA students, who are not allowed to borrow as much as students in other medical professions, and promoting diversity within the profession, said Smith.

When she returns to the University, Weeks is expected to leverage her new skills and organize an advocacy project. “it could be lobbying in Connecticut, doing a PA advocacy week at a local health center, or inviting members of Congress to visit,’ Weeks said.

“Legislative clout for PAs lags behind other health professions that have very large, very visible presences in Washington,” agrees Theresa Horvath, director of the Physician Assistant Institute. “Part of our mission at UBPAI is to grow leaders in the profession, and this is a giant step to meeting that goal.”