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Interview: Division Chief Virginia Valentin

What have the first months of your new appointment been like? I think that the transition has been positive. Since I knew everyone in the division and the department, having been here for five years in various roles including the Director of Graduate Studies, the Associate Division Chief and the Associate Program Director.  Working my way up and being part of all those different roles has helped the transition be really smooth. I’m looking forward to working with department and division leadership. I look forward to a time when we are post-COVID, and we can move forward with some interesting projects.

How has COVID-19 affected the transition and your work? I think that the thing that’s hardest with COVID is there’s no “pop-in”: you can’t just swing by someone’s office and say, “Hey, I wanted to check in” or “Hey, can you look at this for me really quick?”. Everything has to be by appointment, and that makes things difficult when you’re trying to work with lots of different people on lots of different projects. The positive, I will say, is that we have been able to connect more with the faculty and staff in our satellite campus in St. George because we connect the same now with everyone. I think they appreciate that they’re more in the loop than they’ve been in the past.

What do you see is the role of a Division Chief? The main role of the division chief is to support the faculty, staff, and students in the division, in the department, and in the School of Medicine. My role is to guide us to be innovative while adapting to the challenges we are currently experiencing (Covid-19) and challenges we will experience in the next 5-10 years. With only a fourth of PA programs being housed in academic health centers, my role is to make us not only the best PA program in the nation but also the best PA division—which means working through our South Main clinic and doing research that furthers our profession.

What part of that role is most challenging right now? I can’t overstate the impact of this pandemic on the wellness of our faculty, staff and students. Past literature has documented the non-paid labor on women in the United States but this is now at an apex with women taking on the burden of childcare and educating children at home during the COVID-19 crisis.  Our challenge is to support faculty, staff and our students who are taking on this extra burden while they’re living through a pandemic, civil unrest, and the challenge of keeping our families safe at the same time everyone is trying to stay productive in their careers. I think only time is going to tell what impact this will have on people in the years to come.

What does the Physician Assistant Program bring to the University of Utah and the state of Utah? As the fourth ranked PA Program in the nation, we bring to the U national recognition and a reputation for diversity with 38% of students over the last five years being students of color, a fact we’re very proud of.  We also bring the state of Utah some of the best and brightest PAs in the nation. This includes over the last five years- 43% of our graduates working in primary care with 20% of our Pas practicing in underserved settings, with the national average being 7%. As we continue to struggle with how to improve our health care system and increase access to healthcare for all Utahans, I believe PAs are a key part of this solution.

What do you envision for the Physician Assistant Division in the next 5 years? We can’t take our eyes off remaining one of the top PA programs while maintaining our focus on diversity and the PA program mission. That mission has gotten us through 50 years, and we’re celebrating that milestone anniversary this year. But we also want to look at new opportunities, such as developing dual degrees that can increase opportunities for our graduates and PA residencies, which are becoming more popular for our graduates. We also need to adapt to new accreditation standards and PA legislation. Additionally, we want to increase our capacity to provide healthcare to underserved communities, and increase our capacity for research that will build the knowledge surrounding the PA profession and our education model.

What are your top three priorities for funding, beyond scholarships? Right now, we are not in the same building as our students, which is not what we would prefer. Our students are down the hill, and we really would like us to all be together in one space. In the past, we’ve discussed new building plans that would allow us and our students to all be in the same space. We also need lab space for our students to practice physical exams and hands-on skills. Another priority would be investing in PA research. There is a large gap in the literature on PA education and health workforce that we are well suited to address. Additionally, we want to invest in training our students in providing family medicine for underserved populations through our South Main clinic.