A $1.5 million, three-year grant from Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust, announced today by Northern Arizona University, will support expansion of the physician assistant program at NAU’s Phoenix Biomedical Campus.

NAU operates physician assistant studies, physical therapy and occupational therapy programs at the downtown Phoenix campus in collaboration with the University of Arizona College of Medicine–Phoenix.

A portion of the funding will directly benefit the 24-month physician assistant master’s program. The program launched in fall 2012 with 25 students who study in the Health Sciences Education Building shared with the University of Arizona Medical School. The additional funding from Piper Trust will allow NAU to build out and update space in the building benefitting all programs on the campus while accommodating more students and introducing the latest technology.

“NAU’s presence at the Phoenix Biomedical Campus highlights the success of a multi-partner approach that brings together the city, state, university and private philanthropy,” said NAU President John Haeger. “It’s a prime example of how we are adding high quality health care programs that help provide the state with a specialized workforce to fill high wage jobs.”

Physician assistants provide a full scope of primary care practice, including community-based medicine. As demand for skilled health care professionals continues to grow, they are increasingly relied upon as primary care providers who play an important role in a lower-cost delivery model. Physician assistant students at the Phoenix Biomedical Campus study alongside those in two NAU doctoral programs—physical therapy and occupational therapy—and share a lab, library and study space with University of Arizona medical students.

“Piper Trust applauds NAU for its vision to expand the physician assistant program,” said Marilee Dal Pra, Piper Trust’s vice president of Programs. “Health care systems reap great benefits from physician assistants as they help cover the growing demand for primary care.”

In its first two years, the highly competitive physician assistant program has drawn interest from hundreds of applicants. Beginning this fall, 50 students will be admitted annually, growing total enrollment to 75 students in 2014, with 100 students in the program annually beginning in 2015.

Students in the program must complete clinical training in the field, all of which is performed in Arizona. Many of the clinical locations are in areas of the state that lack a strong health care presence, reflecting NAU’s commitment to provide skilled health professionals who are prepared to serve in diverse, medically underserved areas.

A recent study commissioned by NAU estimated that approximately 220 new physician assistants per year are needed to meet current workforce demands in Arizona. NAU is the only public university in the state offering the graduate-level program.