Xavier University stock

Advocate file photo by MATTHEW HINTON of Xavier University

Building on a "longstanding" relationship between two New Orleans institutions, Xavier University and Ochsner Health System have forged a new full-time graduate physician's assistant program, officials have announced.

The program will lead to a master's degree in health sciences and will give real-world experience to students studying to become a physician's assistant, one of the medical industry's newest careers that trains health care professionals in general medicine to work under the supervision of a doctor.

The new program also builds on the university's long history of providing some of the nation's most comprehensive medical training for African-American college students, and follows a concerted effort over the last three years to expand its offerings so students can be more "globally competitive" in future markets, according to Xavier Provost Anne McCall.

“The commitment to establish the new program reflects our mission at Xavier University to prepare students to be servant-leaders who impact transformative change for a more just and humane society," McCall said in a news release.

Xavier isn't the first university to offer physician assistant studies. LSU Health New Orleans, for example, also has a program in place.

But research indicates that the New Orleans area will soon need more physician assistants, as it is among the five fastest-growing careers in the country. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand is expected to grow by 37 percent over the 10-year period ending in 2026.

The American Academy of Physician Assistants estimates there are more than 123,000 physician assistants in the United States today. Ochsner has 183 working across its health system.

In 2017, physician assistants made a median salary of $104,860, statistics show.

Pending provisional accreditation from the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant — a status university officials expect to secure in September — Xavier's inaugural 28-month program will be offered to the class enrolling in January 2020. 

Students will undergo three semesters of classroom instruction before completing roughly 2,000 hours, or 16 months, of hands-on clinical experience through 11 rotations at various hospitals and other facilities.

They'll work and study across a variety of specialties, including family medicine, pediatrics, internal medicine, general surgery, emergency medicine, behavioral health and women's health.  

Officials said the new program is the next evolution in a longstanding relationship between Xavier, the only historically black Roman Catholic institution in the U.S., and Ochsner, the largest nonprofit, academic and multispecialty health care system in southeast Louisiana, with 40 affiliated hospitals and more than 100 health centers and urgent care centers.

That partnership dates back to the early 1980s, when the two institutions established an affiliation to provide experience for pharmacy students. Every year, Ochsner provides clinical training for about 80 Xavier students studying pharmacy, said Leonardo Seoane, Ochsner's chief academic officer.

“Ochsner has a long history of excellence in medical education," Seoane said. "The PA program with Xavier demonstrates our continued commitment to training the next generation of health care providers to meet the needs of the diverse communities we serve."

Xavier remains the No. 1 producer of African-American students who go on to successfully enter medical school, officials said, and leads the nation in awarding bachelor's degrees to African-American students in the biological and biomedical sciences.

Reynold Verret, the university's president, recently touted other new Xavier programs for students studying medicine, including its Bachelor of Science degree in neuroscience, the first such program offered by a historically black college in the country.

Verret underscored the program as part of his "20/20 Vision," a long-range strategic plan to make the institution more relevant than ever as Xavier approaches its 95th anniversary in 2020.

"We will not stand still in changing times," he said.

The new program will be led by Varsha Castro Gusman, a Xavier alumna and founding director of the university's Physician Assistant Department.

Gusman earned a bachelor's degree in biology at Xavier and a master’s degree in the physician assistant program at Our Lady of the Lake College in Baton Rouge before serving as lead physician assistant for the Neuro Critical Care Unit at Ochsner.

In a statement, Gusman said the new program will help the future of health care to become even more "collaborative and diverse."

“The physician assistant program at Xavier University has the potential to have great impact on the health of our communities," she said.

Follow Della Hasselle on Twitter, @dellahasselle.