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Local physician’s assistant selected for New Zealand pilot program

Physician’s assistant Kristan Wheeler sits in an exam room at her practice in Coupeville.  Wheeler is headed to New Zealand for a year to start a pilot program in a local hospital. - Katie McVicker/Whidbey News-Times
Physician’s assistant Kristan Wheeler sits in an exam room at her practice in Coupeville. Wheeler is headed to New Zealand for a year to start a pilot program in a local hospital.
— image credit: Katie McVicker/Whidbey News-Times

Last month one of Whidbey Island’s own medical professionals was selected to participate in a pilot physician’s assistant program clear across the world in New Zealand.

Kristan Wheeler has been working as a physician’s assistant at Whidbey General Hospital for four years. She went to PA school at the University of Wisconsin and received her master’s degree from Pacific University in Portland, Ore. She spent years working at OHSU hospital before moving to the island.

Physician’s assistants are qualified to do about 80 percent of what doctors do, but their training only takes two years and is much less expensive which makes them great resources for understaffed hospitals. In the United States, the health care program has many midlevel practitioners like PA’s helping in hospitals, but in other countries, like New Zealand, there are none.

New Zealand has national health care but they lack in providers and are hoping to start a PA program. The country did a nationwide search in the U.S. for two PA’s to complete a pilot program, and Wheeler was one selected by the New Zealand Ministry of Health.

Wheeler said she has friends in New Zealand who urged who to apply for the position.

“I was like OK,” Wheeler said, “but I’m not going to get it.”

She did. Wheeler will be working in a surgical wing in New Zealand for a year taking care of post-op patients and prepping people for surgery. Wheeler said often in New Zealand the surgeons are busy in surgery and have a difficult time getting around to all of their patients. That’s where she’ll come in.

“This is a way to provide better care and improve access,” Wheeler said.

If all goes well after the year-long program, Wheeler said New Zealand may look into starting PA schools in their country.

“I hope they find a way to find midlevel providers to work for them,” she said.

Wheeler will be leaving toward the end of August for her new position and will return to Whidbey and her practice when it finishes next year.

“I’m sort of overwhelmed right now, but I’m really excited,” she said.

The receptionists in Wheeler’s offices are thrilled for her.

Wheeler’s employer, Leef Roof, M.D., said, “Our whole office is proud that she was selected.”

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