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Luke Schilling, a 34-year-old from Marina, is one of 29 students enrolled in CSUMB’s first physician assistant degree program. He previously worked as a combat medic in the military and on the business side of medicine.

Last year, 1,658 people applied for the brand-new physician assistant degree at CSU Monterey Bay. There were only 32 spots.

Now, a cohort of students is nine months into the training program. This week has consisted of midterm exams, but Benjamin Tauscheck, a PA student, shows no signs of stress. In fact, he’s smiling as he tries on a white coat from a box just outside of the office of the program’s director, Christopher Forest.

The coat fits him well, but Tauscheck isn’t allowed to wear it out in the world, at least not yet. He must wait for a white coat ceremony that will take place in December. The milestone marks the start of clinical rotations, which means the students will train outside the classroom in real-world settings. “This is a really important moment for us because it means we’ve survived,” he says.

If it weren’t midterm week, the students would be receiving instruction in one of the specially designed clinical skills classrooms at CSUMB’s North Salinas building. Forest points to a device called a digital cadaver. “It’s basically a large iPad,” he says, and it operates as a virtual dissection table. The virtual bodies in the machine were created from human bodies that were cross-sliced and imaged.

There are 15 other PA programs in California and only one of those is at a public university, UC Davis. And CSUMB easily wins on cost: total tuition and fees are $89,498, compared to Davis’ rate of $136,158.

In California, the average salary for PAs is a $125,000, according to U.S. News and World Report, which ranked the profession as the best job in health care, and the third-best job of any kind in 2019. “For a degree that takes two-and-a-half years to complete, that’s a good investment,” Forest says.

Having more medical professionals is also a good investment for the region, which is why two local health systems helped pay for the CSUMB program’s establishment. Central California Alliance for Health donated $750,000 and Montage Health gave $600,000.

The PA profession is a relatively new one. It started in the 1960s when combat medics returned from Vietnam, according to Forest. “They came back and didn’t have licenses to do the things they knew how to do,” he says.

Today, PAs can perform many of the functions of regular physicians, but they require less training and certification and their pay scale is lower, which is an advantage for regions facing a shortage of health care workers, like the Salinas Valley. PAs can diagnose illnesses and treat patients, prescribe medications and perform certain surgical procedures.

One of the leading pioneers of the profession, Alfred Sadler, is a resident of Carmel. He helped set up the CSUMB program in order to address disparities in health care access. “Here the focus is on areas that are underserved, particularly the farmworkers who are not getting the care they need,” he says. “If you want to staff a clinic in an efficient way, it would be smart to have PAs working alongside a physician.”

Forest and his staff just completed interviewing candidates for next year’s cohort. “We are looking for people who want to care for underserved communities,” he says.

The program is one of three across the country to teach PA classes in conversational Spanish, he adds.

Asaf Shalev is a staff writer at the Monterey County Weekly. He covers the environment, agriculture and K-12 education, as well as Seaside, Marina, Sand City, Big Sur and Carmel Valley.

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