In the mid-1970s, Dale Simmons, MD ’57, was looking for help with his solo family medicine practice in Mount Airy, North Carolina, while Ercell Tate, PA-C ’73, was looking to build his experience in family medicine.

An older Caucasian man sits on a bench outdoorsThrough precepting, they each found what they needed and forged a lifelong friendship.

“His approach from the beginning was education and training, teaching me what I needed to know to be in family practice,” says Tate, who went on to work with Simmons for more than 12 years.

Jennifer Nuetzi James, MBA, associate director of medical education administration for academic affiliations and health care education, says medical professionals who serve as preceptors show students how textbook knowledge is translated into patient care.

Preceptors help students by modeling quality patient care, and by letting students practice patient histories and physical exams, formulate differential diagnoses, identify appropriate diagnostics and treatment plans, take part in patient and health care team-based communication and learn procedures and surgeries.

An older African-American man in a black suit and wearing glasses smiles at the camera“Preceptors bring to life the professionalism, understanding and care that it takes to be a provider in their area of expertise,” James says. “They are vitally important to the ongoing development of compassionate health care providers, now and for future generations. They have their own individual skill set, knowledge and background that provides a rich learning opportunity for students both educationally and personally.”

Tate says Simmons encouraged him to take a leading role in his profession. Tate entered the PA Program, which graduated its first class in 1971, looking to build on skills he had developed as a paramedic in the U.S Army. Tate went on to help found the American Academy of Physician Assistants and the North Carolina Academy of Physician Assistants, which he led as president, becoming the first African-American to do so.

“It took a lot of time away from work and a lot of expense, and he was a solo physician,” says Tate, who still stays in touch with Simmons. “But he encouraged me to do these things.” 

Tate, who with his wife is working on providing a scholarship award for the PA Program to help it enhance the diversity of the student body, sees benefits for both preceptor and student.

“Precepting gives you a chance to meet someone who is fresh out of academia and is on top of the newer things that are going on that you can learn from,” says Tate, now retired and living in Houston, Texas, after a 22-year career with 3M Pharmaceuticals. “It also will give you a chance to teach some of the people who are straight out of academia how it is in the real world. It’s a chance for the two worlds to combine and share knowledge and information.”

To learn more about serving as a preceptor for a School of Medicine student, contact James at or 336-713-0944.