$1.4 million grant to grow underrepresented minorities in medicine and expand care in rural areas

An award from the Health Resources and Services Administration will increase underrepresented minorities in medicine and support student work in areas of mental health, opioid addiction and primary care in rural areas.
Written by Kevin Storr
Media contact: Adam Pope

Headshots of Wei Li, Ph.D., and Tosi Gilford, M.D.An award from the Health Resources and Services Administration will increase underrepresented minorities in medicine and support student work in areas of mental health, opioid addiction and primary care in rural areas.
(Photography: Andrea Mabry and Lexi Coon)
The Health Resources and Services Administration has awarded a $1,492,465 grant to the University of Alabama at Birmingham Physician Assistant Studies program to expand mental health training for students, increase the number of underrepresented minorities in medicine and extend clinical care to more underserved patient populations.

In Alabama, 62 of the 67 counties fall under the federal definition of Health Professional Shortage Areas. More than one-third of recent UAB physician assistant graduates work in medically underserved areas, but everyone recognizes that number needs to rise even more. 

“I grew up in a rural county in Alabama, and I have seen firsthand the devastating impact on a community when health care options continue to disappear,” said Kathy Nugent, Ph.D., chair of Department of Clinical and Diagnostic Sciences and director of the UAB Harbert Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “I am excited that our PA students are being given more opportunities to reverse this disturbing trend and deliver more care to those in the most need.”

The HRSA grant is part of the program’s “PA Training Enhancement Initiative” and goes through 2026. It will enhance student training in opioid and other substance use disorders by delivering a specialized addiction medicine elective rotation that will be offered to five UAB PA students. In addition, this new elective rotation will also be offered to five physician assistant students from other PA programs across the nation, on an annual basis for the next five years. 

“The substance use disorder — especially opioid addiction — is a pandemic in the United States,” said Wei Li, Ph.D., the grant’s principal investigator and an associate professor in the UAB PA program. “This grant will help us prepare PA students from our program, as well as other programs, in fighting this pandemic. Physician assistant students from other PA programs are welcome to apply for an opportunity to complete an elective in our newly developed addiction medicine rotation, with corresponding expenses being covered by this grant as a scholarship.” 

As part of the new initiatives, the HRSA grant will provide the UAB PA program an opportunity to enhance their behavioral medicine didactic curriculum. New curriculum — including training in the courses Mental Health First Aid, Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training, and Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment — will be added to further develop student skills in recognizing and treating patients in the area of mental health.

The National Alliance on Mental Health reports one in five U.S. adults experiences mental illness. Considering the average primary care facility sees 20 patients per day, the physician assistant could encounter around four people experiencing mental illness daily. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the lives of many Americans across the country, especially regarding their mental and emotional health.  

“Unfortunately, there are not enough psychiatrists or psychologists to screen, evaluate, treat and manage this growing population of patients,” said M. Tosi Gilford, M.D., PA-C, the grant’s co-investigator and director of the UAB Physician Assistant Studies program. “Ultimately, the burden of care will lie heavily on clinicians practicing in primary care and in the setting of urgent care and emergency medicine. 

“To ensure our students are prepared to meet the needs of these patients in a competent and compassionate manner, we are proud to be given an opportunity to expand our didactic and clinical training to equip students with the tools needed to assist in identifying, treating and counseling patients with mental illness; and decrease the stigma of mental illness, in an effort to improve the cognitive, behavioral and emotional well-being of the patient population in which they will ultimately serve,” Gilford said. 

Recent diversity efforts from the Physician Assistant Studies program have resulted in a double-digit increase over the past two years in the number of students underrepresented in medicine accepted to their incoming cohorts. The HRSA grant will support an expansion of the recruiting and retention efforts of these students, to surpass the national average for physician assistant programs. Furthermore, the UAB PA program will intensify their efforts to facilitate the education of U.S. military veterans to honor their service and the history of the program. UAB PA is the second-oldest program in the nation and was founded by military veterans in 1968.

This is the second HRSA grant for the UAB Physician Assistant Studies program, which is housed in the School of Health Professions. In 2004, the program was awarded a grant to conduct risk assessments for sexually transmitted diseases and HIV. That grant resulted in the development of curriculum on recognizing risk behaviors in patients, and the training was also offered to visiting PA students from other programs across the country.