School of Medicine

Physician Assistant Studies - Program

Interview With Don Pedersen

History & Archives

Advanced Social Context
November 16th, 2005
Jennifer Coombs, MPAS, PA-C

Q: Why did you decide to become a PA?

I was always interested in medicine and majored in Biology. I was working on a course and came in contact with a physician assistant and it really resonated with me. I had pursued a graduate degree in Health Education, and was intrigued with health prevention and thought it would be a great thing to do. I went to this talk by Bill Tosier. I know Bill to this day, he is a Colonel now in the military and one of the chief advisors for PA issues for the Air Force. I did employ him after that talk to do some further health assessments. I was impressed with his medical modalities in watching him do his pulmonary exams. I came down from Pocatello, getting up at 5 in the morning and driving down in my van. I had a meal ticket and a shower and lived in my van. A little cold in the wintertime.

Q: How did you make the leap between a graduate degree in health education and PA education?

Well, it did seem natural-- it seemed like a natural fit. I worked in Blackfoot, Idaho with the Doc that I precepted with. It was just a really rewarding experience in family medicine, solo family practice physician in a small town. It was everything you could have wanted, I think, in a career, getting to know the community and, having a respected physician and so on.

I was flattered that the PA program wanted me to teach and be involved in the program. That lured me away from what I was really enjoying in Blackfoot Idaho. It was some 10 years working at the PA program before I decided to pursue a doctorate. I felt I could play a role in running the program. Administration at that time was very supportive of people getting advanced education. So I took a few courses and then tackled it in earnest for a few years.

What was your dissertation on?

It was in Occupational Ergonomics. At that time, I needed to have a doctorate to become full faculty and so that was part of my motivation to do it. But, shortly after that, I got my degree in '88 and '89, and then I was appointed to be director of the PA program. And that, in retrospect, was a good move. I did entertain the idea, over the years, of going back into clinical practice. And then that was usually after a class that may have had a peculiar collective attitude that makes your job a little more difficult. So you ride out those storms and, like I say, in retrospect, I'm really happy now that I was able to stay and make some contributions because my whole idea of coming back to the program was to help the program gain the legitimacy within the academic setting.

Q: Do you have any overriding theory from your doctorate in health education that has guided you? Do you have any guiding principles that you use on a daily basis as a program director?

I'm not so sure I'd classify them as guiding principles but I do like the mantra, if you will, of the PA profession: quality, affordable healthcare to the underserved. I think we've maintained that here at the

program over all the years I've been here and I still think it's a good niche for PAs to be involved in.

Q: And then your service internationally, does that fall under your mantra of service to the underserved?

Right. Yeah, I think it fits really well into our philosophy. Those individuals that have gone on these international rotations, Papua New Guinea or Thailand or South America, I think they come back different people.

Q: When you went to Thailand and Papua New Guinea, is there anything that you learned in your health education training that helped you with those experiences?

My health education curriculum, both at Oregon State and the doctorate here at the University of Utah really underscored prevention. That's what it's all about in the third world.

It is better to prevent problems than to try and implement cures for situations because, in a lot of instances, they're just not sustainable in the Third World. So better to prevent the diabetes or the heart disease or what have you that's coming to developing countries as they become more westernized and modernized.

Q: So, as the President of the PA Foundation, do you have a theory that guides your philanthropic work?

Well, I think it's humanitarian outreach and it's developing partnerships to synergize or to maximize, what you're able to accomplish. We found that really strikingly with Hurricane Katrina and the relief that the PA Foundation was able to provide in terms of rebuilding healthcare and infrastructure in the Gulf. With the challenge grant of fairly modest amounts, $10,000, we were able to get contributions from PAs across the country and increase that to some $80,000, which we will distribute to community health centers who serve the underserved.

So, yeah, I think community partnerships and humanitarian outreach is really, from the PA foundation standpoint, what we're all about. We just reworked our mission statement around those concepts. Our former mission statement didn't speak to that. It talked about fostering knowledge and quality care through philanthropy. That may be good but a little nebulous and the fact of the matter was, we weren't fostering knowledge. We weren't funding research, we weren't encouraging scholarly works. I wanted to more accurately reflect what we were doing and who we are and what we stand for. And that's going to be the brand across all of our programs so I think it's service to the underserved. That's what it's all about for me and my fellow board members on the foundation board. We kind of resonate with that idea.

Q: What motivates or guides you personally to do all of this humanitarian work?

I would guess that, due to the influence of my parents and the way I was raised and experiences I've had throughout my life.

With the recent tragedies, Hurricane Katrina and Rita and the tsunami earlier in the year, you see images. I think everybody shares, on a certain level, that feeling of compassion and desire to be involved and to help in some way. I was just fortunate, with the tsunami, that, we had contacts and resources. I had a personal connection with the death of a daughter of a friend of the family. (Callie)

I was trying to make it happen, through the Red Cross and was running into a lot of dead ends. But it was seeing Stu, the father of Callie and the older daughter, Shanti, find Callie's picture, you know, on the body board that so shook me? (on National television) You just say, okay, that's enough. I've got to do something.

Q: Most people wouldn't get on the plane, wouldn't go and work in the morgue.

Yeah. I can't really explain that. It's almost even supernatural. There were so many things that happened, leading up to, during it and after it. They're just unexplainable. Many coincidences that were so amazing.

Q: But you also seemed to be at the right place at the right time to have these coincidences.

Well, that's a lot of it. That's what I learned about disastrous situations, it's timing.

Q: It sounds like your guiding principle is how can I be of service?

My parents were very giving people. I don't know if that's inherited or you learn by example. My father had a really unique style. He was President of Oreida Foods, he knew every secretary by name and most often knew their, family situation, their kids. He did work at that and he walked around a lot. He called it MBWA. Management By Walking Around.

Q: Nursing has a lot of theory behind it. Do PAs have a theory?

PAs are partners in medicine, we're team players, consummate team players, with our supervising physicians. I don't believe we have a PA theory. We practice medicine. So, in that regard, our theory is what our physician colleagues would have us do. I've never heard of medicine theory so it's kind of a foreign concept.

I believe, though, there is a building body of knowledge relating to PA education, through our association and through our journal and through scholarly works. But in terms of a theory, there maybe has been an approach to educating PAs in more a competency-based model. But, in terms of PA theory, I couldn't elaborate on that.

Q: We have been talking a lot in this department about the divide between Public Health and medicine.

Well, I think we're in the position, as PAs, to influence the health of communities. You know, our country is rampant with diabetes, hypertension. You know, it's like that image of being on the banks of the river and there's a person floating down, drowning and you jump in and save them and bring them back to the shore. And then, a few minutes later, there's another one. And you bring him back. And then there's another one and you bring him back to shore. Eventually you better to go upstream and find out who's throwing these people off the bridge. But we have to do both. We, individually, deal with our patients but, if we could be, as a group, more proactive on some of these major issues. The PA Foundation, for example, can make a real difference. Health literacy, and health disparity. All of these things are major, major issues that we individually can make a difference but, collectively; we'd probably have more power. I don't fault medicine for dealing individually. Number one, you don't have that time, unfortunately, because you don't get paid for it, you don't get reimbursed for it.

Thank you for your time.

Don Pedersen: Well, I think I've learned a lot about myself.