|Author: Julia Elliott|
|PA Equips Students to Treat Patients from Diverse Cultures|
|Chris Helopoulos, MS, PA-C is one of three full time PAs of a full time faculty of six at Barry University, located in Miami Shores, Florida. Helopoulos enjoys being part of a small faculty because "we all get to wear several hats."
"It is similar to other PA programs and its emphasis is in primary care, explains Helopoulos, "but with some unique features. We are part of the School of Graduate Medical Sciences which includes the Doctor of Podiatric Medicine, (DPM) and Surgery program and the Physician Assistant Program (M.C.M.Sc.) It is one of only seven in the country and has been in existence for 15 years. [It is also one of the only two Podiatric Medical programs affiliated with a full university.]
"While PAs are not currently supervised by Podiatric Physicians," Helopoulos says, "you can bet that our students get 'a leg up' on their lower extremity anatomy."
As Associate Director of Clinical Education for the PA program since 1998, Helopoulos explains some of his duties, which includes meeting students in their clinical year. During these clinical site visits he "makes sure everything is in order and both the student and the supervising physicians expectations are being met," explains Helopoulos. PA students at Barry University have the opportunity to participate in a clinical phase of training patterned after the traditional medical model. In their second year, PA students build upon their knowledge and continue to develop diagnostic skills and clinical reasoning. Clinical rotations are conducted at local hospitals, primary care centers, and community physicians' practices.
The Barry University Physician Assistant Program, in operation for three years, offers the Master of Clinical Medical Science Degree and is a fully accredited and challenging graduate program.
The quality of Barry's graduate program is reflected in the success of their students. The inaugural class achieved a 100% pass rate on the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam. This is pretty impressive for a program whose mission statement includes being dedicated to producing ethical, caring and competent Physician Assistants. Barry University Physician Assistant students will spend a part of their training working in under-served and disadvantaged communities with an emphasis on primary care. Another aim of the Program is to produce graduates who have sufficient knowledge of scientific research design and statistics to be able to read and intelligently interpret the medical literature.
The international character of Miami where Barry University is located, offers a rich variety of opportunities. "Although the base program is similar to other PA programs across the country," admits Helopoulos, "what makes us different is that we have to consider the diverse cultures found here and adapt our students to the communication barrier that this presents. To enhance and facilitate these experiences, we currently require our students to complete two semesters of our uniquely designed Medical Spanish course or Medical Creole," Helopoulos explains. "This course will not make them fluent in those languages, it will be just a starting point and will help them determine how each culture views medical conditions as patients describe their symptoms. We believe this will help our students be better prepared and give them expanded job opportunities. This requirement will help the students as they enter the workforce wherever they choose to go, because the diverse culture is not limited to the Miami area and is found in many areas of our country. The basic knowledge of these Medical/Language courses will be an appealing part of their resume. Also, being part of a small Catholic university, we hope that our students will pick up part of the caring and ethics they have learned here and apply it to their education, which will add to the appeal," says Helopoulos.
To help students understand patients needs further, Helopoulos pursued and was successful in his suggesting the use of handheld computers for the PA students in their clinical year. His "pet project" that he is the proudest of, is finally in use as of September of this year, for the first time. The potentials and the obvious benefits that this technology is bringing to medicine are a boon to education, data collection and data analysis, and Helopoulos knew it would be great addition to the present program. Helopoulos sees first hand, how the age of electronics and its advancements, are important learning tools that offer improvement and accuracy to the students as they learn. "These small electronic devices are easy to carry and less costly than a laptop while offering many aspects of learning right in the palm of the student's hand, as they gather and evaluate medical data and participate in the process of clinical decision making, diagnosis, and therapeutic management," says Helopoulos.
"Dosing and medication can be looked up readily with the hand held computer method, offering the electronic resource equivalent of a 'Physicians Desk Reference,' to assist the students in their quest to keep up with the new drugs and interactions. We are also asking the students to log all of their patient's encounters in this device, noting the highlights of the visit and procedures performed, immediately after each visit. At the end of each clinical rotation, each student will download the information from the patients that they saw that month, into one common database, and the total student data is in one place.
It will help us monitor the student's progress and fine tune their programs, which enhances the present learning tools we now have. The student will have all of his experience and learning available for future job placements that they may encounter. The prospective employer will be able to read his qualifications from the electronic document generated from this hand held device. The ability to exchange information back and forth from the PC to the hand held device is helpful because it is portable.
Helopoulos states "once you adopt to this portable computing method, it makes it easy for both the teachers and the students. We are not revolutionary or unique in using the hand held device because medical students in other institutions have used this method for a while, but it is a first for us. What we (the PAs) have learned about it this year, will be passed on to the Podiatry Program next year so they can benefit from our experience with it."
Besides helping students and the program move into the age of electronics, "I teach a Physical Diagnosis lab section weekly, and also teach Health Promotion and Disease Prevention and Clinical Orientation in the summer." Further describing his main responsibilities, which are in the clinical education realm, Helopoulos goes on to say, "I help establish and maintain clinical rotation sites, place students in their clinical rotations, site visit them and evaluate them."
When asked what other areas of interest are included as his position as a PA, Helopoulos proudly explains his involvement in the Barry University's Crippled Children's Project in Mexico. This project began with humanitarian flights organized by Barry Physicians who opted to grant charitable surgical treatment to crippled children in that area. Since it began in 1996, more than 500 children have been treated and 1,800 volunteer hours have been logged.
"This is a wonderful outreach program which the Podiatric Medicine and Surgery Program has conducted for an under-served population in Yucatan, Mexico. My involvement was to help determine whether this would be a feasible and worthwhile project to involve our PA students in, especially those that I am diligently pursuing to bring to fruition. During our visit to Mexico, it was extremely moving to see the love and the gratitude which these people expressed for the help that we could offer their children that have been born with birth defects such as clubbed feet and other lower extremity malformations. There is no equivalent to a PA in Mexico and I see the potential of growth and opening of doors for PAs in Mexico and other countries. We would not be putting any doctors in Mexico or any other country we approach, out of work. We are partners that would enhance the services of the doctors."
Although most medical professionals know early on that they will gravitate towards the direction of medicine, Helopoulos says he was "not too sure he had what it took to become a doctor." While he was pre-med in college, he changed his major, earning a BA English and an MS in Advertising and pursued a different career path altogether for the next twenty years. "I worked in advertising for 10 years but, I was not very happy, and moved onto a few other fields," Helopoulos admits. "About the best thing that happened during these uncertain years was that I met my wife Terry, who sensed my frustration and urged me to follow my original dream, [to reenter the medical field]. Although it was a bit scary at first, his wife's encouragement and support helped him make another career change that eventually led him to where he is today. It was while he was working as a medical technician in a blood bank, Helopoulos interacted with a PA, and thought it was a "neat career." His PA friend suggested he look into it more and as a result, he enrolled in a PA program in nearby University of Florida, where he earned his PA degree and went on to begin a career that eluded him for twenty years.
It was while working as a PA in a family practice, that Helopoulos encouraged his wife Terry to further her career as a nurse by becoming a PA, also. Shortly afterwards she was accepted into the inaugural class of the Miami-Dade Community College PA Program which meant that they would have to move to the Miami area. During his job search, Helopoulos answered a want ad for PA faculty in Miami while he was attending the AAPA conference in Salt Lake City. Helopoulos explains, "I interviewed and got the job. At least we could move to Miami and still put food on the table." Although it meant uprooting and moving once again, it has had a positive effect on Helopoulos and his wife who has just recently graduated from the M-D CC PA Program and is taking her national boards.
Helopoulos says, "our personal life, to a great extent, is our professional life too. They are pretty much tied up together. My wife had to become a PA too, so we could speak the same language." The couple have a son who is presently a medical technologist at a blood bank and is entertaining the possibility of applying to a PA school sometime in the future.
Helopoulos plans to stay where he is to help motivate, express, and pass along his enthusiasm for this profession. His plans for the future also include "keeping up with technology, being able to motivate and inform students without inducing sleep, being able to explain to the lay person what a PA is, convincing doctors to become and remain clinical preceptors, keeping everybody in clinical rotations and keeping everybody happy."
Chris Helopoulos, MS, PA-C, graduated from the Physician Assistant Program at the University of Florida College of Medicine in 1994 with a Bachelor of Science in Medicine. He received his Master of Science, Communications (Advertising) at the University of Illinois in 1975, and a Bachelor of Arts in English at the University of Illinois in 1973 . He is Vice President of the Florida Academy of Physician Assistants, Florida Delegate to the American Academy of Physician Assistants House of Delegates, and has been re-elected HOD delegate from the state of Florida for 2001. He was formerly a Physician Assistant in family practice and ambulatory care in Daytona Beach, FL, and a former Medical Laboratory Technician, Civitan Regional Blood Center in Gainesville, Florida.
Julia Elliott is a freelance writer from New York. She is on the Editorial Staff of NEWS-Line for Physician Assistants.