Grant allows physician assistant partnership with Harrisonburg-Rockingham Free Clinic


SUMMARY: "We are very excited to partner with the JMU physician assistant program in the education of future health care leaders with experience serving underserved patients," Keith Gnagey, executive director of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Free Clinic.

By: Laura Mack '16
Creative Services Student Writer

PHOTO: PA Student at Free Clinic

As part of its vision to become a national model for the engaged university, JMU underscores the value in connecting with and providing services to the local Harrisonburg community. This kind of engagement is exactly what the physician assistant studies (PA) program had in mind when it established an official partnership with the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Free Clinic. Funded by the Health and Human Services Administration, a federal grant of $887,000 now provides PA students with the opportunity to gain hands-on experience serving the free clinic over the next five years.

“We haven't gotten any grants before, never mind a HRSA grant, so we're pretty excited,” Jerry Weniger, director of the PA program, commented. "For us, it's a win and the students are going to be better prepared for their supervised clinical practice experiences." Over the course of their 28-month program, PA students normally would not have patient interactions until their clinical rotations, which begin about halfway through the program. Now, they are able to gain this exposure much earlier, with each student working at the free clinic about 10 times in their first year.

Grace Berardini, a first-year PA student, walked through a typical shift serving patients at the free clinic.  “When we arrive, we are assigned a patient and review their chart prior to seeing them. Then, we pick them up from the waiting room, take their vital signs, and ask about their chief complaint, or, in other words, why they came in today,” she explained. “We present all of this back to our supervisor, who goes with us to talk the patient and conduct a physical exam.” The program supervisors are Susan Adamson, a nurse practitioner who has worked with JMU and the free clinic for a number of years; Sara Tranum, a graduate of the JMU PA program; and Sharon Maiewski, a JMU professor, who is also an experienced volunteer for the free clinic. They oversee and work with students at the clinic four days of the week.

PHOTO: PA student in clinic

Through this process, students are able to put classroom lessons to practice. “We learned how to take a comprehensive history and how to do a complete physical exam in our first semester, so it is helpful to practice these skills on real patients. We also rely on basic interviewing skills to get clinically important information from the patients,” said Berardini. “Ultimately, our transition into practice will be a lot smoother with this hands-on experience happening earlier in our education.”

PA students are not the only ones who benefit from this partnership. Through this federal grant, the free clinic receives increased staffing from PA students, as well as new medical equipment and supplies. “We're buying them a new table, a new EKG machine, flu tests, strep tests, blood glucose tests, laptops for the students to use while they're there,” Weniger listed.  “It’s lots and lots of medical supplies that they otherwise are having to fundraise for and get donations.”

Berardini, along with the rest of the first-year PA students, is grateful for the opportunity to gain more experience, while also connecting with members of the local community. “I was nervous before my first shift as I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it turned out to be a really great experience,” she said. “This partnership not only allows JMU to be engaged with the Harrisonburg population, but it also gives students the opportunity to connect personally with the community.”


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Published: Monday, March 27, 2017

Last Updated: Thursday, November 2, 2023

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