National PA Week: A Conversation with Cathy Ruff, Program Director of the RVU PA Program

RVU’s PA Program welcomed its second cohort of students over the summer. After completing the program, these students will become medical professionals who can diagnose illness and develop and manage treatment plans. In doing so, they will help to alleviate the shortage of physicians in the nation. In honor of National PA Week, RVU hosted a conversation with Cathy Ruff, MS, PA-C, Program Director of the RVU PA Program.

Cathy Ruff, MS, PA-C, Program Director of the RVU PA Program

The PA profession began over 50 years ago as a way to rapidly train and utilize more health care professionals in areas of medical need. How has the profession changed over time?

The generalist training offered by most PA programs is intentional – it provides foundational knowledge that ensures the PA graduate can function capably in a variety of settings. The flexibility to move within specialty areas still exists and is one of the cornerstones of the profession. The role of the PA, however, has expanded greatly. Where once PAs mainly provided well or minor acute care, now PAs are managing more complex, chronic conditions and are found in nearly every specialty area. 

With the PA profession being fairly new in the world of healthcare, there are bound to be some misconceptions. Have you encountered any?

I was frequently asked by patients when I was going to become a doctor! In general, PAs may be confused with other members of the team – such as Medical Assistants or nurses. It is a common misperception that still exists. PAs must be willing and able to concisely describe their role to ensure patients have a clear understanding of the collaborative, team-based approach offered by the PA. 

What made you want to become a physician assistant personally?

A combination of research, clinical medicine, and teaching experiences guided me toward the profession. I started out in bench science (scientific research experimentation) at a cancer research center and realized very quickly that I do not enjoy rodents of any type! From there, I moved into monitoring clinical trials, expanding my knowledge of pharmacodynamics and therapeutics. I shifted from the monitoring/compliance side of things to working with a physician who was running clinical trials. I had regular patient interactions and found that the application of my basic science background to clinical medicine was far more interesting, challenging, and rewarding. 

The PA Class of 2021 recite their vision statement.

I learned of the PA profession from a friend who was researching the field. It sounded so interesting that I began researching it too! The profession, for me, offers a culmination of the experiences I had previously – the best of all worlds!

What has your career as a PA been like?

I have been a PA for nearly 24 years and enjoyed practicing in both family medicine and pediatric asthma and allergy. I provided primary care to infants and the elderly, worked alongside a world-renowned expert in food allergy, and served as preceptor to PA and MD students. While in clinical practice, I moved into academia within a large institution. I developed expertise in curriculum design, student assessment, and program evaluation. I wouldn’t do anything different! I love my profession and the career flexibility and growth it offers. I continue to grow every day through my experiences with students, faculty, staff, and the institution.

Do you still practice or is your career now more focused on academia?

I practiced clinically for 18 years and stepped out of clinic to focus on academia about 5 years ago.

Cathy joined the RVU team in 2016 as one of the founding members of the PA Program. She began as the Associate Program Director and Director of Curriculum, helping to build the program from the ground up.

What do you do in the RVU PA Program?

I spent the first two years developing a competency-based medical curriculum for Physician Assistants – one of the first in the country. My role has evolved and I assumed the role of Program Director a little over a year ago. 

What are some questions you receive most about the PA Program?

We are most frequently asked what qualities we are seeking in applicants to the program. The PA Program takes a holistic approach to reviewing its applicants. We look for individuals that are compassionate and collaborative, and have demonstrated experience in primary care medicine. The ability to adapt in an ever-changing environment is another key attribute. Additionally, we want to see an applicant has the foundational knowledge in the sciences and humanities that will contribute to their success both in the program and as graduates.

Cathy Ruff receiving the Faculty Innovator Award during the 2018 White Coat Ceremony.

What can we look forward to with the PA Program?

The PA program is in full swing, just recently matriculating its 2nd cohort!  The students are celebrating National PA Week this week and faculty are preparing to attend the Physician Assistant Education Association’s national meeting in mid-October, where two faculty members will present on some unique aspects of our curriculum. 

As one of the first PA programs in the country to adopt a competency-by-design curriculum, the program is poised to become national leaders in Competency-Based Medical Education.

On a side note, what do you like to do in your spare time?

Ha! Free time is sparse these days, but I do enjoy reading, baking, spending time with my family, and making regular time to hang out with friends.  Plus, we have 2 feisty dogs who need lots of exercise!

You’ve given great advice for potential and current students. But what is the greatest advice you have received?

Be authentic. When I moved into a leadership role, I spent a lot of time researching and speaking to colleagues in similar positions about what it meant to be a leader. One such conversation revolved around “being authentic,” It’s really hard to be someone you’re not! I am always trying to improve myself and being true to who I am is an important part of that growth process.

Finally, what are you most proud of?

On a personal note, it may sound sappy but I’m most proud of my kids. They are bright, funny, talented, and well-rounded. They continue to amaze me as they move into adulthood. On a professional note, I’m proud of the team we are building within the PA program and of our students’ transformation into compassionate, competent, physician assistants.   

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