Helping Veterans, Sending Care Across North Carolina

UNC System President Tom Ross reeled off the numbers: 800,000 veterans, the third largest active military force of any state in the nation, six major military installations. North Carolina is a military state; the public institutions in North Carolina have a responsibility to our military, Ross explained to the crowd celebrating the new UNC Physician Assistant (PA) Program.

“As increasing numbers of troops return home to the U.S. from wars abroad and transition to civilian life, many will be looking for ways to improve their education and to find their way in the civilian workforce,” he said.

The UNC PA Program, set to launch on January 4, 2016, when the first 20 students begin coursework, is one important new way veterans with medical experience, especially Special Forces Medical Sergeants (18-Deltas), as well as other nontraditional students, may access unique educational and career opportunities.

The timing of the program launch could not be better. By 2020, estimates reveal a national shortage of approximately 150,000 physicians and 65,000 primary care physicians. In North Carolina, the problem is most acute because so many citizens live in areas that do not have enough health-care providers to serve their communities effectively. The program will help to reduce the state’s health-care workforce shortage to provide training in underserved areas.

“We have developed our program to take into account the health-care needs of the constituents of this state, with a particular focus on rural outreach and community-based care,” said Stephen Hooper, PhD, Chair of the UNC School of Medicine’s Department of Allied Health Sciences, the home of the new program. “I am confident that this program will not only become one of the best programs of its kind in the state – I am confident that it will become one of the premier PA programs in the country.”

To recruit and teach nontraditional students, nontraditional medical personnel have been tapped as program faculty. Dr. Paul Chelminski, program director, professor of medicine, and primary care physician at UNC, came to medicine from the Peace Corps. Chelminski emphasized the program’s fit within UNC’s public service mission by evoking UNC President Edward Kidder Graham’s 1914 Inaugural Address: “‘We hope to make the campus co-extensive with the boundaries of the State…to put the University…in warm, sensitive touch with every problem in North Carolina life, small and great,’” Chelminski said.

The celebration was held at the Kenan-Flagler Business School and was attended by members of the military, university and business leaders, and program faculty and staff.

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt shared that the program has already generated a great deal of excitement around the state, evidenced by the huge number of applications it has received.

“If you ever needed anything to tell you that this was a program whose time has come, it’s the interest and excitement that we see from those who would like to be a part of it,” Folt said.

The program would not be possible without the unprecedented public-private partnerships that have been formed and the generous donations from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (BCBSNC), the William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust, the Eddie and Jo Allison Smith Family Foundation, and the leadership and support of Dr. Mary Susan Fulghum and her late husband Dr. James Fulghum. These gifts will enhance rural health-care delivery, provide scholarships, create programs, support veterans and their families, and more.

Brad Wilson, president of BCBSNC, likened the UNC PA Program to North Carolina’s special history of supporting veterans and the health of North Carolina communities, particularly at the end of World War II.

“It is the character and the heritage of North Carolina that when there is a problem we see opportunity,” said Wilson, who committed to partner with the university and the UNC School of Medicine on the program several years ago during a visit from then-Chancellor Holden Thorp and Dean Bill Roper, of the UNC School of Medicine. “We come together as North Carolinians and we say what is possible, ask what we need, and then we roll up our sleeves and we do it.”

The program will feature a two-year curriculum that will include clinical training throughout UNC Medical Center, the UNC Health Care System, as well as primary care sites at Chatham Hospital and the Southeastern Regional Medical Center Red Springs Family Medicine Clinic, in Red Springs, North Carolina. Four UNC-Chapel Hill schools — the School of Medicine, School of Nursing, School of Pharmacy, and School of Public Health — nineteen departments, and North Carolina AHEC partnered to create the curriculum.

The program’s early roots are found in the relationship between the Joint Special Operations Medical Training Center (JSOMTC) at Fort Bragg and the UNC medical community. Colonel Robert Lutz, MD, United States Army Special Operations Command, discussed the Advanced Medical Instructor Training (AMIT) program, a partnership that allows medic instructors from JSOMTC to rotate to UNC Hospitals for career and educational development opportunities. Col. Lutz expressed gratitude for the opportunities UNC and AMIT have provided medical learners like UNC Emergency Department resident Nicholas True and UNC School of Medicine students Eric Strand and Karl Holt, each of whom served as Special Forces Medic Sergeants before pursuing careers in medicine at UNC.

Instrumental in the development of AMIT and the UNC PA Program was Bruce Cairns, MD, who was not able to attend because of a recent health issue. Although physically absent from the event, Cairns, a Navy veteran, John Stackhouse Distinguished Professor of Surgery, director of the internationally renowned North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center at UNC Medical Center, and chair of the faculty at the University of North Carolina, was noticeably present.

Prior to the event, Chancellor Folt tweeted with Cairns and spoke with him by phone.

“All he could do was mention names,” she told the crowd. “He wanted to name everyone who participated because this, to him, is a study in partnership and relationships.”

He also shared this additional message: “I am so grateful for the university and community support of the medics and the creation of the PA Program, especially for the Special Forces medics. In my opinion, our military members have sacrificed so much for our country that supporting them and creating this special program is the very least we can do as a leading public university. It’s not about who or what – it’s about getting it right.”

For more information about the UNC Physician Assistant Program, visit

by Zach Read –