Increasing Racial and Ethnic Diversity at the University of Utah Physician Assistant Program

Darin Ryujin, MS, MPAS, PA-C | Jared Spackman, MPAS, PA-C | Trenton J. Honda, PhD, MMS, PA-C | Virginia Valentin L., DrPH, PA-C | Doris Dalton, MPA | Mauricio Laguan, BA | Wendy L. Hobson, MD, MSPH | José E. Rodríguez, MD

Fam Med. 2021;53(5):372-375.

DOI: 10.22454/FamMed.2021.923340

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Background and Objectives: Among the oldest in the nation, the University of Utah Physician Assistant Program (UPAP) serves the state of Utah and surrounding areas and is a division of the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine. Recognizing the need to produce health care providers from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, UPAP instituted structural changes to improve student compositional diversity. This paper is a presentation and evaluation of the changes made to determine their relationship with compositional diversity, ultimate practice setting, and national rankings.

Methods: UPAP changed diversity messaging, curriculum, efforts in admissions, recruitment, and retention to improve the representation of Black, Latinx, American Indian/Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander students, as well as those from educationally and economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Results: UPAP tripled the number of underrepresented minority matriculated students over the course of five admitted classes, while simultaneously increasing the proportion of students from educationally or economically disadvantaged backgrounds. UPAP maintains both high boards pass rate and top national rankings, (number two ranking in public physician assistant program and number four overall program in the United States).

Conclusions: The UPAP experience demonstrates that intentional diversity efforts are associated with improvement in racial/ethnic diversity and national rankings. Other medical school graduate programs, specifically the medical doctor (MD), public health, and basic science programs can use this model to improve their compositional diversity.

A racially and ethnically diverse health workforce is critical to all communities in the United States, especially those that are underserved.1,2 US Census data show that groups collectively known as underrepresented in medicine (URM) are growing at rates much higher than the US White population.3,4 The US physician assistant (PA) profession, however, does not mirror the current population,5,6 and has recently experienced an increase in White matriculants.7 As a result, while URM populations in the United States are increasing, the PA workforce remains predominantly White. Similarly, the diversity of the Utah PA workforce lags behind the Utah population (Table 1).8

A health care workforce that mirrors the diversity of the population can help reduce health disparities.9,10 Because PAs care for increasingly diverse populations with complex needs, the PA workforce must change.11 Recognizing the need to diversify the PA workforce, the University of Utah Physician Assistant Program (UPAP) underwent a radical transformation over the last decade through intentional changes in admissions, student support, and curriculum. This study examined the equity, diversity, and inclusion changes implemented by UPAP and compares outcomes over a 5-year period. As about 20% of PAs practice in primary care settings, increasing diversity in PA programs can increase the diversity of the primary care workforce. In addition, UPAP techniques presented in this manuscript can be implemented in medical school admissions as well as family medicine resident selection.


UPAP initiated changes to foster and encourage equity, diversity, and inclusion in the program over the last decade. UPAP focused on four broad areas: intentional diversity messaging, student recruitment and admissions, student retention, and curriculum reform (Table 2).

Measuring the Impact

To measure the impact of these equity, diversity, and inclusion changes from 2014 to 2019, UPAP compared matriculated students’ admissions application data, including race/ethnicity/gender demographics and students’ self-identified educationally or environmentally disadvantaged status. Upon each cohort’s graduation, UPAP used the graduates’ National Provider Identifier (NPI) numbers to track employment location and practice specialty, focusing on medically underserved communities (MUC). UPAP followed the annual US News and World Report program ranking to correlate the program ranking with practice setting and student diversity. UPAP assessed preparedness for practice with the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE). The University of Utah Institutional Review Board deemed this project exempt from review.


In almost all categories, UPAP matriculated more URM students each year from 2014 to the entering class of 2019 (Table 3). The class size increased by 45%, from 44 to 64. At the same time, URM matriculated students increased by 212% from 8 to 25 per class (18% to 39% of students). Women in the class remained relatively constant between 52% and 61%. Students who self-identified with educational or environmental disadvantaged status increased over the observation period from 24 to 44 (55% to 70% of students; Table 4).

For the four classes that graduated during the study period, employment in primary care settings was high across all years, varying from 38% to 54%, as did employment in medically underserved communities (MUC), varying from 22% to 43% (Table 5). First-time PANCE pass rates varied over the observation period from 93% to 100%; all graduates passed the PANCE by the second attempt. UPAP’s ranking by US News and World Report improved from number five in 2015-201612 to number four in 2019-2020.13


With an intentional focus on increasing diversity, UPAP tripled the number of URM matriculated students over the course of five admitted classes, while simultaneously increasing the proportion of students from educationally or economically disadvantaged backgrounds. At the same time, UPAP’s class size increased to meet the UPAP-mission-based medical workforce needs. Utilizing holistic admissions criteria increased the diversity of UPAP’s matriculating class.14 UPAP’s initiatives have resulted in a diverse class, an increase in national rankings, and a stable high percentage first-attempt PANCE pass rate.

The matriculated UPAP students in 2019-2020 are now as diverse as Utah’s general population, allowing for improved racial and ethnic concordance with providers and patients.15 Provider-patient concordance improves communication, trust, and patient satisfaction.16-19 Twenty percent of UPAP graduates practice in underserved settings while the national average for new PA graduates is 7%.20 Uniquely, while White matriculation is increasing nationwide,7 UPAP increased matriculation of URM, low socioeconomic status, and educationally disadvantaged students. Furthermore, this increase in diverse matriculation is associated with an increase in national rankings of UPAP.

UPAP has been successful in, and remains committed to, a process of continuous diversity improvement to ensure that the gains of the last 5 years are built upon for the foreseeable future. UPAP must remain vigilant in selecting applicants who intend to work in primary care, in addition to continuing equity, diversity, and inclusion efforts. The successful changes from UPAP can be made elsewhere, even in areas with limited racial/ethnic diversity. Utah as a whole, as well as the UPAP faculty, are majority non-URM; UPAP prioritizes the retention and recruitment of all faculty and has made the hiring of URM faculty a priority in its strategic plan. The model may be effective for medical schools as well as PA schools, and may be easier to implement in medical schools as there are fewer students per seat soliciting admission.21 The UPAP transformation may be duplicated in family medicine residencies and assist in increasing the diversity of the family medicine workforce.


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Lead Author

Darin Ryujin, MS, MPAS, PA-C

Affiliations: Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah


Jared Spackman, MPAS, PA-C - Physician Assistant Program, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT

Trenton J. Honda, PhD, MMS, PA-C - Northeastern University Bouvé College of Health Sciences, Boston, MA

Virginia Valentin L., DrPH, PA-C - Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT

Doris Dalton, MPA - Physician Assistant Program, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT

Mauricio Laguan, BA - Office of the Associate Vice President for Health Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT

Wendy L. Hobson, MD, MSPH - Department of Pediatrics, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT

José E. Rodríguez, MD - Office for Health Equity and Inclusion, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT

Corresponding Author

José E. Rodríguez, MD

Correspondence: Interim Associate Vice President for Health Equity and Inclusion, 26 South 2000 East, 5750 HSEB, Salt Lake City, UT 84112. 801-585-1763.


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