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PA Student Aims to Increase Diversity in the Health Professions

September 01, 2021
profile photo of Tiffany, a Black woman in a grey top with cat eye glasses

Reversing barriers to financial aid for graduate students so the health professions more accurately reflect the demographics of the country is something on which Tiffany Passie will focus her attention over the next year.  

Passie, a second-year student in the MGH Institute’s Master of Physician Assistant Studies program, was named one of 20 Health Policy Fellows across the country – and the first IHP student – by the Physician Assistant Education Association (PAEA).   

She will advocate for a bill in the U.S. Congress that would allow graduate students to receive subsidized Stafford federal loans.  

She says restricting access to subsidized Stafford loans puts the most financially needy students into further debt. While graduate students can receive unsubsidized Stafford loans, she says they carry a financial burden because students can be forced to pay interest accumulated while attending school.   

Although the Physician Assistant Higher Education Modernization Act of 2021 (HR 2274) would give students from all health professions access to the loans, her focus is on the profession she will join upon graduating in 2022.  

“I am particularly devoted to changing the PA profession’s trajectory in improving its diversity of providers and to improving the accessibility of PAs in providing care to all patients in all settings,” said Passie, who is a director of the Physician Assistant Students for Leadership, Equity, Anti-Racism, and Diversity (PA-S LEAD), a national student group whose mission is to promote leadership equity, anti-racism, and diversity in the profession. “We need to develop policies which allow PAs to support health care as expansively as we can to impact as many patients as possible.”  

In September, she and the other fellows will learn from influential policy staffers, experts in PA practice and education advocacy, and other advocacy stakeholders before having the opportunity to directly meet staff in the offices of their elected representatives.    

A 2013 study by Dugger et al., which she referenced in her fellowship application, found that from 2010 to 2011, the average medical school indebtedness was $150,000 to $160,000 for medical students, with over 70% of Black students incurring higher than average debt.    

Additionally, persons of color becoming physician assistants is trending downward. In 2018, 3% of certified PAs identified as Black or African American, down from 10% in 1999. And a 2018 study among 40 different health professions showed that the PA profession has the highest yearly decrease of Black PAs, though the recruitment of minority applicants has increased.    

“Increased diversity in the PA profession would lead to several benefits for patients: higher numbers of minority health care professionals lead to more minority providers in medically underserved areas,” said Passie, whose mentor is Josh Merson, associate director of the PA program. “Research has shown when minority patients are cared for by minority providers it leads to more culturally competent care, so having more minorities in professional health care roles would improve advocacy for vulnerable patient populations which, in the wake of COVID-19, is required to combat the systemic racism in medicine. This change will require Congress and its constituents to fully embrace what minority applicants bring to not only PA education, but to health care in general.”  

Passie also is one of 15 students to receive a Future Educators Fellowship from the PAEA for the 2021–2022 academic year. She will participate in sessions to explore foundations in teaching, expose students to the current educational environment, and expand professional development and leadership opportunities. Two graduates, Jennifer Gerard PAS ’17 and Aubrey Fiacco PAS ’21, also were named Future Educator Fellows while attending the IHP.