HELENA — Carroll College has announced plans to launch a new graduate-level Physician Assistant program – its latest expansion in the health care field. It comes as the demand for physician assistants is on the rise, in Montana and beyond.
At a news conference Thursday morning, Carroll President John Cech called the announcement one of the most significant in the college’s 113-year history.
“With our liberal arts foundation, it really provides an incredible platform for the college to meet needs that exist in Montana,” he said. “Montana, like the rest of the country, is facing a health care workforce shortage, and physician assistant is at the top of the list.”
Carroll leaders and representatives from Montana health care organizations were on hand to mark the occasion.
Cech said Carroll now has approval to start the multi-year process of getting accreditation for the 27-month program. Leaders hope to bring on a founding director by 2023. The first cohort of 34 students would start classes in fall 2025 and graduate by December 2027.
Physician assistants are trained for a range of medical duties, including diagnosing illness, prescribing medication and putting together treatment plans. They’re supervised by physicians, but can serve as primary care providers – particularly in rural and frontier communities that may have difficulty bringing in their own physicians.
According to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, the number of physician assistant positions in Montana is expected to grow by more than 31% by 2031. That amounts to more than 200 additional job openings over 10 years.
A 2021 state rural health plan says Montana has the eighth-highest number of PAs per 100,000 residents in the nation. While four counties had 59 or more practicing PAs, 11 counties had none.
Cech pointed to state data, showing Montana’s demand for PAs was up to twice the available supply.
“The fact that we are beginning a physician assistant program is going to be significant for the entire state of Montana – especially the rural areas that need physician extenders,” he said.
Currently, Rocky Mountain College in Billings is the only institution in Montana that offers an accredited master’s degree program in physician assistant studies. Carroll is already offering a pre-physician assistant pathway that will align with their new graduate program.
The new program will also extend Carroll’s long-running partnerships with St. Peter’s Health, which go back more than 50 years. St. Peter’s is planning to build a primary care clinic on the southwest corner of the Carroll campus, and the physician assistant program will be housed in that building. St. Peter’s providers will help students with their clinical training.
St. Peter’s CEO Wade Johnson says physician assistants are a key way to extend their providers’ services.
“It just makes a great team,” he said. “At St. Peter’s Health, we believe in team-based care – that everyone can play a role in making sure that patients are getting their needs met.”
Cech said almost half of Carroll’s students are involved in programs in health care and other “helping professions.” The college has made those areas a focus in recent years, with programs like Accelerated Nursing and the Master’s of Social Work.
Johnson had high praise for Carroll’s graduates, and he said he’s excited to work with the college on this program.
“We have lots of physicians, lots of nurses and other health care workers at St. Peter’s that have come from Carroll, and they’re just an exceptional group,” he said. “So we couldn’t be more pleased to see them training more.”