UF PA School's class of 2011 making their mark on health care

For 15 years, Tamara Wood and her husband, David, served as missionaries in Niger and Burkina Faso, two West African countries where so many suffer from curable illnesses but have little access to health care. The couple soon realized that one of them should get medical training in order to better serve the people.

UF College of Medicine School of Physician Assistant Studies student, Tamara Wood. Photo by Maria Belen Farias

Tamara Wood, who has a master’s degree in nutrition from the University of North Florida, considered different options for her medical training, such as nursing, but a colleague in her mission field introduced her to the physician assistant profession.

“I had actually never heard of PA programs until 2006,” Wood said. “I started to research and realized that it would fit everything I wanted to learn and do.”

In the midst of her service in Africa, Wood began pursuing a degree in PA studies by completing prerequisite courses which were available online at the time. She was accepted to the UF College of Medicine’s School of Physician Assistant Studies in 2008.

On Saturday, June 18, the 43-year-old and her 57 classmates will receive their PA degrees during the school’s commencement ceremony at the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.

Choosing the UF College of Medicine’s PA program was easy for Wood for many reasons. After being away from home for so long, it was important for her to live closer to her family in Florida. She also could not ignore the high employment rate for UF PA school graduates, the near-perfect passing rates on the National Certifying Exam and the low tuition fees for in-state students.

“There are so many things that set apart this program from any other,” she said. “UF provides quality education, access to the best residents, faculty, staff and attending doctors from all around the world.”

Two years ago, the UF PA studies program received ‘school’ status, demonstrating the significant role the program serves at the college. It also reflects a higher need and demand for physician assistants in the health care industry.

Ralph Rice, DHSc, PA-C, associate dean and director of the college’s School of PA Studies, is looking forward to the opportunities ahead to advance the school even further.

“The school is investigating postgraduate training programs and integration of clinical scenarios into our education,” Rice said. “There has been a consistent increase in the number of applicants for years. This indicates a brighter future for physician assistants and health care professionals.”

Rice also hopes to encourage graduates of the program to serve as mentors for students and to give back not only to the community but also to their profession.

Wood and her classmates exemplify Rice’s vision for the program.

“Our class as a whole was very active,” Wood said. “Many of us volunteered at the College of Medicine’s Equal Access Clinic and the Mobile Outreach Clinic’s migrant worker health visits.

Wood was the only PA student in her class to receive the National Health Service Corps Scholarship, awarded to committed health care students who plan to serve as primary care providers in underserved communities. She was also the class president and spoke at orientations and panels aimed at motivating undergraduate students to get involved and help those who are less fortunate. She occasionally volunteers at Baptist Collegiate Ministries, where her husband works as the associate director.

Immediately after graduation, she will take her board exam and head to Puerto Rico for a vacation with her husband. Wood will be back to work in August at Gainesville’s Palms Medical Group & Pediatrics where patients are seen regardless of their ability to pay.

Wood always knew that she wanted to work in the primary care field where she can help the underserved. But her interest in pediatrics grew during her mission work in Burkina Faso, where about half of the population is under the age of 15.

“My decision is not based on income but on the fact that I can help people,” Wood said. “It fits well with me personally and what I believe in.”