Skip to main content


UNC School of Medicine – Department of Allied Health Sciences
Interview with Dr. Bruce Cairns – Winter 2015

What does the UNC Physician Assistant program mean to you as a veteran? (00:09)
The people who serve our military are so important to our nation, and I think that this program is so important to them because less than one percent of our population serves. They serve all around the world and they come back and they have an opportunity to apply those skills here and help us solve some of our most pressing problems, which including serving those who are medically underserved. And the fact is that this program really addresses that issue, and so we’re very excited about that.

How will the PA program benefit North Carolinians? (00:42)
The underserved here in North Carolina really need the best and the brightest – the ones who have the capacity, judgement, and experience to be able to make the best decisions. And frankly those are our veterans – they have been in those experiences before, they have had to do this in much more challenging circumstances. I think they will really serve our people well and we know that the people of North Carolina are very proud of our connection with the military and will embrace them.

Why is the PA program’s collaboration with the military important? (01:12)
Well, the history of the program is very important to the history of the University. We were founded by people who fought in the Revolutionary War as an institution. Over the years, as a public university, we have been very supportive of the military, particularly during WWII but also during the Vietnam War. I think it is our nation’s longest war that we’re currently fighting in, the world is still a very dangerous place. One of our principal roles as a public university is to have this partnership with the military. I think it’s very important that we remember that history, remember those connections, and then use those to serve the people of the state.

How does the PA program serve as a civilian counterpart to the veterans’ training? (01:53)
Well, the value for the veterans to become part of this program and to have this additional physician assistant training is it expands on the very specific training they had before they entered into the battlefield or the particular area that they served in. Also, it teaches and educates them about the population that they’re going to serve and then the rules and guidelines that they’re going to need to follow. It really creates a partnership – so we we will learn from them and they will learn from us, and we will all benefit.

How will PA program graduates impact the economic growth of North Carolina in the future? (02:30)
Well the PA alums will be representatives of what really the University has to offer the state and the nation, and particularly those who are veterans. It will serve to enhance the reputation of the university –  that we serve all of the people. I think all of the missions of the institution will be served by the PA alums, in addition to the wonderful care they will provide our citizens.
Why do you think the PA program is in such high demand? (02:58)
Well, the reason that the PA program at UNC is in such high demand is because this is such a wonderful University – it has an outstanding reputation, it’s a leader in health care, not just in North Carolina but throughout the nation, and also we have a very close relationship with the people, in particular members of the military. I think they are very excited about having affiliation with the University and being able to carry that degree and then use both experiences to really do their jobs well. I think it really goes back to the people of the state supporting the institution and it having such a quality reputation, and being a public university.

Why is it important to add a PA program at UNC-CH? (03:40)
The reason to have a physician assistant program is because the time it take to complete the program and what physician assistants are able to do. The health care workforce is changing rapidly in the United States and we need to have an evolution in the model that we’ve had over the years and the physician assistant program is one of the best ones that has evolved recently. It’s extremely flexible and there are a lot of options for people to graduate. In addition, we would like to extend partnerships with the nursing school, the nurse practitioners, and then eventually develop into residencies so that we can serve the full spectrum of needs for all the people of the state. I think the one aspect that everyone agrees on is that we don’t have enough people in health care to serve the people who are in need.

Who will the PA program serve in terms of non-traditional students? (04: 32)
So the non-traditional student is important for the physician assistant’s program because we know that there’s certain populations that aren’t being served. But it’s also important that traditional students be a part of the PA program, we want to have people be able to work together and be able to solve these problems together, whether it’s at  a research institution or a community practice. I think that the key is that we create an environment where everyone is served. The fact is, it’s going to be increasingly more difficult to solve the health care problem in our state, and across the nation. We have to be innovative and we have to think differently. We have to create opportunities for everyone. The non-traditional student, and particularly the veteran, really represents a great opportunity for us to do that quickly.

Why are veterans equipped to practice in rural areas? (05:21)
There’s a way to think about the PA program and what we’re trying to address as being two tracks, but in fact they come together. And the reason is the people who have been in the military, who have served, usually it’s in austere environments and they like solving problems with limited resources, they like being in charge and leading, but they also understand the need for hierarchy and structure. So this is their home, this is where they like to be. They would be at home in these environments where people need a lot of help but they also like to have that sort of structure that allows them to then refer patients say back to UNC or some other tertiary care medical center. This is why the military veterans, the 18 Delta, the medic, is such a great population to start the program with, because they help us address both issues – allowing the military to have jobs in civilian communities, as well as going out to places where we need to work the most, as opposed to going to an urban environment where we have a lot physician’s, we have a lot of health care providers, and the need might not be as great. It’s a perfect match.

How does the history of the PA program relate to the history of the University? (06:30)
The history of the creation of the PA program relates to the history of the University and its relation with the military overall. And what that means, is that as a public university we’re here to serve all populations. So while the PA program’s initiative was driven by supporting members of the military and serving their needs as well as addressing the needs of the underserved, this is first and foremost a UNC program and so it needs to meet the needs of the University system and those will always be the primary considerations. But the value of working with the military is that we benefit with our partnership together, and I think that’s true, not just for the PA program but many programs here at UNC.

What will the program be able to accomplish in North Carolina? (07:18)
My goals ultimately for the PA program is for this to be, as the rest of the UNC system is, the greatest public university PA program in the nation, if not the greatest PA program in the nation. But what does that mean? It means that we are selecting the best and the brightest, and we are learning from our colleagues in the military, and then we are creating a network of providers who then allow us to serve the people of the state first, but also become a model for other states to address similar problems that support veterans. Then we will be able to investigate why that is, the practices that really work the best, what are some of the educational philosophies that the military uses to train their soldiers and medics that we might be able to adapt here at Carolina and is there anything that we do that they might be able to use while training medics. I think that goal would be to see the program continue to grow and expand. The number of people who applied shows that there’s great interest. If you look across the state and you see the need, there’s absolutely every reason to see the program grow and expand and be relevant. I think that’s perhaps the most important goal I have, is to just see it thrive.

What types of course do the PA program students take? (08:42)
Courses that the students will be taking are through an accredited PA program, so there is a curriculum that is defined by the accrediting agency, but we will have some flexibility to adapt to various advanced courses in surgery, In medicine, in situational medicine as we call it. But we want people to be able to have an accredited degree, so that they can work anywhere in the nation.  

How will the PA program positively impact North Carolina? (09:11)
North Carolina will benefit from this program because of a recognition that two of our greatest institutions – the United States Military, the special operations command, and the University of North Carolina are working together to solve the problems of our nation has here as opposed to around the world. We are already everywhere else trying to help people get better, it’s time for us to make the investment here in North Carolina and i think the opportunity is vast. Why? Because many people who volunteer come form North Carolina, but many who serve stay in North Carolina, spend the rest of their lives here and raise their families here. And so this creates an enormous opportunity for us to prove that point and I think that the people of the state will be extremely proud of that and then will want to continue to invest in the University and help us to improve our programs. I think it’s a win, win, win for everyone involved.

What is the current state of health care in North Carolina? (10:12)
A million North Carolinians are underserved in a population of nearly ten million. They’re mostly in rural areas, and when people get trained and they get advanced degrees they want to work in environments that are comfortable. The military medic is comfortable in those austere environments. That’s where they live, that’s where they’re from, that’s where they’re comfortable. It’s a perfect way to try to address a real, difficult problem in our state. We know because we’ve heard from the people of the state that they will love and embrace these graduates.

UNC School of Medicine – Department of Allied Health Sciences