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Empathy Guides Physician Assistant Program Director’s Approach

May 2012

Guiding elderly parents through the American health care system left Clare Kennedy wondering if there might be a better way.

"We found good care providers and very poor care providers," said Kennedy, a practicing physician assistant and educator who has been chosen as the founding director of the St. Ambrose University Master of Physician Assistant program. "They all had different ways they could communicate with the family. I just found the health care system in general was difficult."

Kennedy's pro-active decision was to become part of the solution. In 1991, she returned to the University of Nebraska at Omaha with her sights set on a nursing career. But recognizing Kennedy's strong capacity for empathy and understanding, former University of Nebraska Medical School Physician Assistant Program Director Jim Somers steered her toward the growing physician assistant field instead.

"Best thing I ever did," Kennedy said of earning her Master of Physician Assistant Studies degree in 1996. "Hardest thing I ever did. PA programs are very accelerated, very difficult. But, boy, is it an accomplishment when you get through."

As a practicing PA from '96 through the present, Kennedy has leaned on her experience as a parental caregiver.

"I am very into patient-provider relationships and that includes family," Kennedy said. "It's empathetic care. It's trying to the best you can with what you have. I think it has shaped everything I have done in practice and I think it really comes out in the way I teach, too."

Somers said he knew her personal touch also would serve Kennedy well when she joined the teaching staff of the physician assistant program at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in 2005, and he believes it also will be a primary strength in her leadership role at St. Ambrose.

At St. Ambrose, Kennedy expects to shape an MPA program that will help fill a looming shortage of family doctors, particularly in rural areas. Empathy and communication definitely will be stressed.

"That's a part of the program I see being stronger in an MPA program than I do in a medical school," she said. "I tell students you can learn Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine verbatim, if you want. But if you can't connect with that patient and have them be honest with you about things that are going on, you're never going to be able to help."

Kennedy turned to teaching after a two-year stint on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota ended due to a lack of funding.

Having worked as a precept for student PAs in their clinical phase, Kennedy found she enjoyed "listening to where they are coming from, learning their clinical reasoning skills and kind of pointing them to where they needed to be in a clinical setting."

She enjoyed teaching, in other words. And now the lifelong Nebraskan is looking forward to relocating on the banks of the Mississippi River with her husband and five rescue dogs, and settling in to help launch a new program.

She said the groundwork set by the university and particularly by Sandra Cassady, PhD, PT, dean of the College of Health and Human Services, will provide a strong head start. And Kennedy is particularly pleased with SAU's student-centric way of thinking.

"It seems like there is support for quality programs and for students," she said. "Everybody looks at the student and I think that is so important."

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