Alumni Portrait: Debra Cole, MPAS ’01
By Tyler Francischine
When Debra Cole attended the UF School of Physician Assistant Studies 15 years ago, it was another world.
This June, she returned to UF as one of nine faculty members in the department of physician assistant studies as a clinical assistant professor.
“It’s radically different now. We use very few physical books to teach. Students learn differently because of technology, and the program seeks new and innovative ways to deliver education. It’s very interactive and collaborative,” she says. “But the stress for the students is still the same.”
Cole’s duties include teaching topics like dermatology to first-year students, assisting second-year students on their rotations, and other academic responsibilities.
“The program here is highly regarded across the country,” she says. “It’s exciting to be here. I’ve been a Gator since I was born.”
Her favorite aspect of teaching is watching a student’s face light up when an idea clicks.
“This program can be overwhelming because of its fast pace,” she says. “I love seeing their faces when the light bulb goes off. They finally understand what I mean when I say, ‘Trust the process’ because it is a process.”
When the UF physician assistant program started in 1972, it was established as an associate of science degree program hosted at Santa Fe Community College. In 1996, it became a graduate level program, offering the master of physician assistant studies degree. It wasn’t until 2009 that the School of Physician Assistant Studies became a department within the UF College of Medicine. Now its offices are housed in the Randolph S. Mahoney, P.A., Suite within the George T. Harrell, M.D., Medical Education Building.
Cole says there are a few lessons she learned in her physician assistant school days that she passes along to current students.
“As a student, I learned time management and a new style of learning. We teach the students that it’s not about rote memorization; it’s about lifelong learning,” she says. “And we teach them about listening to patients. You may come in with a preconceived thought or diagnosis, but that may change after you hear from the patient.”
Before joining the UF faculty, Cole worked as a physician assistant at Henghold Skin Health and Surgery Group in Pensacola and as an assistant professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. She says one of the most important services physician assistants offer is increased access to patient care.
“Physicians are often overwhelmed,” she says. “The relationship between the physician and the physician assistant is a really neat thing. We work as a team, and we open that access of care for patients.”
She says the best part of being a physician assistant is the patient interaction.
“Whether it’s a day-to-day thing or a health crisis, you see a lot of sides to people,” she says. “It humbles your heart and mind about humanity. Having that human-to-human relationship is how you deliver great care.”
The American Academy of Physician Assistants National PA Week runs from Oct. 6-12. At the UF College of Medicine, students will attend several events from Oct. 3-12 to celebrate the impact and importance of the physician assistant profession. On Oct. 6, the UF Pre-PA Club will host a social at Yogurtology, and on Oct. 7, students, faculty and staff will complete a scavenger hunt.