VCU student Desiree Longmire is examining why so few physician assistants focus on gerontology

Portrait of Desiree Longmire.
Conversations with her grandparents led Desiree Longmire to pursue a research project to examine why so few physician assistants focus on gerontology. (Courtesy photo)

Though many of VCU’s annual Research Weeks events have been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic — including the annual Poster Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity — the university is curating a digital archive and slideshow of undergraduate research posters. The deadline for submissions is June 1. Across VCU, students continue to hone their burgeoning research skills. These are some of their stories.

Desiree Longmire’s conversations with her grandparents about their health influenced her decision to become a physician assistant and led to a research project to determine how many physician assistant programs in the U.S. offer a gerontology curriculum. 

A senior health sciences student in the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences in the College of Humanities and Sciences, Longmire heard her grandparents, who are in their 70s, say they felt the physician assistant they had seen wasn’t really listening to or addressing their health concerns because he didn’t have a background in gerontology.  

“They felt belittled. A lot of people think older people are just coming in to complain,” Longmire said.

A study-abroad experience in Jamaica helping assess the needs of the island’s older population increased Longmire’s interest in the research and the profession, and ultimately led her to continue her work through an undergraduate research fellowship funded by VCU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program and iCubed.

Longmire started her research project to learn more about a career in the physician assistant profession, which started in 1965 when the Vietnam War caused a shortage of doctors and a need for substitute physicians arose.

“I also wanted to see why there is a national shortage of physician assistants focusing on gerontology,” she said.

She found that there are 238 accredited physician assistant programs in the United States but only 38% offer a gerontology track. States with the most programs offering gerontology classes, such as Florida, Georgia and Louisiana, have a higher rate of older individuals.

Longmire’s research also looked at the demographics of the students in the programs and the extent of diversity on their campuses. She researched programs at three schools — Duke University, University of Nebraska Medical Center and Florida International University. She found that all three schools had a higher percentage of white students in the PA track than minorities. 

She believes there is an opportunity for physician assistants to increase the number of underrepresented groups providing care to the aging population. “It will be helpful to have more of a diverse system in the PA profession for management of chronic illness, patient disability and/or injury as people age,” she said.

Longmire interviewed a dozen older patients about their health care experiences. They expressed concerns similar to those her grandparents shared. “They also felt like they were being belittled,” Longmire said. “They felt like health care professionals talked to them like they were a kid.”

Because of a lack of trust, the older population doesn’t seek care as consistently as possible. “From a physician assistant’s perspective, it looks as if people are being noncompliant,” said Longmire’s research mentor, Christine Booker, Ph.D, a teaching assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences. “Desiree started putting the dots together on how one action was influencing another.”

Longmire’s research study was an important factor as she considered whether to apply to a graduate program, Booker said. Longmire plans to spend the next year completing a certificate program to gain hands-on experience, then apply to PA programs.

Booker believes the job of physician assistant will be an ideal career for Longmire.

“Desiree is an extrovert. Her personality is to reach out and make people feel comfortable,” she said. “She has the ability to connect and she has a calm demeanor.”

Longmire hopes her research will help bring awareness to several issues and prompt physician assistants and the entire health care field to look at making changes to health care for older adults. 

“I also hope it will help me excel in my future career,” she said.

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