Typically, physician assistant students spend a year in classroom study before donning a white coat and interacting with patients. Physician assistant students at UC Davis, though, begin their clinical experiences in their very first quarter.

“This was one of the big draws for me to come to UC Davis,” said Tiffany Ha, a second-year physician assistant student at the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing at UC Davis. “I knew I would have this opportunity to begin immediately.”

Ha, who worked as a UC Riverside undergraduate in student-run clinics in Southern California, now serves as a co-director for the Joan Viteri Memorial Clinic, which is a UC Davis Student-Run Clinic offering unbiased health care to IV drug users, sex workers, transsexuals and their families.

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Physician assistant, nurse practitioner and medical students work together to provide health care to underserved communities through the UC Davis Student-Run Clinics.

According to Ha, engaging with patients at the beginning of her degree program provides critical insight for her future as a provider.

“By working in a clinical environment, this helps you remember what you are learning in the classroom, but with real people,” she explained.

Early clinical interactions also provide students immediate opportunities to view patients as people with unique circumstances and needs.

“You really get to know a person’s story. For me, that’s an important part of providing unbiased care and how to show others compassion,” Ha said.

These real, and therefore knowledge-growing, interactions with individuals seeking care make up just one reason UC Davis physician assistant students are required to devote time each quarter to clinical practice.

“Our students are exposed to longitudinal, interprofessional, team-based care. This is also a novel concept of service learning,” explained Gerald Kayingo, program director. “Throughout their clinical exposures, physician assistant, nurse practitioner, medical and undergraduate students work in teams to provide care for the underserved communities of Sacramento. They have the opportunity to apply their didactic knowledge to a clinic setting at an early stage and also to appreciate social determinants of health in communities.”

Jason Sajulan, also a second-year physician assistant student and former emergency medical technician, agreed. He said the exposure to other health professions is eye-opening — for everyone involved.

“All of us come with really different experiences. This exposure to other health professions early in our education is a good thing,” Sajulan explained. “This way, we won't silo ourselves into groups — doctors, nurses, physician assistants, nurse practitioners — later after graduation and will see each other as peers who value each other’s backgrounds.”

Kayingo said another distinction of the UC Davis program is the variety of clinical settings students here experience.

“For decades, physician assistant training has been concentrated in hospital-based settings,” Kayingo said. “Health care in the 21st century requires more understanding of ambulatory care, environmental determinants of disease and how patients, families, communities and providers work together to improve health. At UC Davis, we expose students to these experiences as soon as they start their education.”

Additionally, Sajulan says the flexibility UC Davis allows is perfect for students who know what they want to do after graduation.

“This program is exactly what you make it to be,” Sajulan said. “I learn best by doing, so having clinical experiences early allows me to learn better… I can focus my studies on the areas that really need it.”