Kathryn Reed (SHRS ’14 ’16G) returned to her alma mater this past summer, not only to share medical expertise, but also to bolster inclusion efforts for future certified physician assistants (PAs).
“I’ve always said Pitt overprepares you for any career you’re trying to get in. I believe that was true for my emergency medicine and physician assistant studies. I felt very supported and gained so much knowledge,” said Reed, who is also founder and president of the National Society of Black Physician Assistants.
Reed said the Department of Physician Assistant Studies in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences has shifted for the better since her time as a student at Pitt, by working to improve the learning environment and educational experience for all students, including students of color.
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“During my clinical year, comments were made by a preceptor or two that made me realize that although the goal of diversifying medicine was discussed frequently, in many spaces, the reality of being a person-of-color provider experiencing those encounters was uncomfortable at best, and emotionally draining and harmful at worst. I want to work on eliminating those experiences for students of color coming into the program behind me,” she said. “I know that Pitt’s program is fantastic and that those encounters weren’t a true representation of how supported I felt by faculty. My purpose in alerting the faculty to these events was to work together to create change.”
Black physician assistants make up just 3.6% of their workforce in the U.S., according to a 2019 survey report by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. Reed wants that number to go up, starting at Pitt.
“It’s about finding your ‘blind spots’ as a program or provider, acknowledging any harm that was caused intentionally or unintentionally and working to create sustainable change. The department’s meaningful actions and attention to detail in this effort are just a part of what makes me proud to be an alum of the program,” she said.
Creating a network for students
Reed’s experiences as a student led her to work with her advisor and assistant professor David Beck, now chair for the Department of Physician Assistant Studies. In 2018, the two set out to improve the academic space for physician assistant students of color.
That’s when the gears started turning to go beyond the University and create the National Society of Black Physician Assistants as well.
“Talking with faculty at Pitt was how this started,” Reed said. “And talking about their experiences with PA friends who I met in my undergraduate studies made me feel like it wasn’t my blinders being on; others were having the same experiences too. After having that realization, I felt that we could start the process in earnest.”
The society serves as a resource for Black physician assistants to improve education and health outcomes. The group is addressing diversity issues and challenges that physician assistants of different racial and ethnic backgrounds face. Founded in 2019, the society is creating a community that will encourage knowledge sharing, mentorship and support.
The society implemented a mentorship program in January for students, with surveys being distributed to collect outcome data. The society has also hosted virtual events in the past year for physician assistants in training as a way to help with students’ engagement with practicing PAs and PA program advisors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Improving spaces for students
Pitt’s Department of Physician Assistant Studies recently implemented a policy for when students of color experience situations similar to Reed’s, part of its inclusion initiative to advance the climate of inclusivity among students, staff and faculty. This includes a Professionalism and Mistreatment Reporting Form for students and faculty to confidentially identify any mistreatment or unprofessional conduct.
“We’ve made it explicit that there is a system for bringing these up and having them addressed by faculty and staff in an appropriate way without repercussions,” Beck said. “We’re all part of the same system that has its flaws, but we’ve increased training efforts for ourselves as faculty and staff, as well as our clinical affiliates and preceptors.
“Problems of inclusion and supporting students of all identities can be hidden in places that aren’t necessarily obvious. There have always been opportunities to improve these areas. Learning more about the experiences of our students and digging deeper into the literature about inclusion for students across higher education was a tidal wave for me when I became director of our program in 2018,” he said. “It’s up to all of us to work together to improve.”
Reed said students who find themselves facing microaggressions in any academic setting should speak up and talk about them to friends or academic advisors.
“One of the things I wish I would’ve done was talk about my experiences sooner,” she said. “And if students don’t feel supported by their respective departments or groups, seeking advice from professional organizations or mentors can make bringing the conversation up the chain of command less daunting."