Natalie Smith, DMSc, PA-C
Natalie Smith, DMSc Program Director

After several years of discussion, development and research – so extensive that team members published their findings in a peer-reviewed journal – the Doctor of Medical Science (DMSc) program at Wake Forest University School of Medicine welcomed its inaugural class of eight students on May 6.

The new program offers a unique interdisciplinary approach and an unparalleled commitment to scholarly rigor and practical application, according to Program Director Natalie Smith, DMSc, PA-C.

"Our goal is to empower our graduates to contribute significantly to their fields, whether that be in leadership roles, research or education," Smith said. “The DMSc is designed to enable PAs to gain the expertise necessary for navigating and influencing the complex health care landscape.”

The Wake Forest Department of PA Studies has a long history of developing leaders in the PA profession and innovating health care education. The DMSc program continues this tradition, offering experienced PAs a pathway to advance their careers and expand their impact.

“I envision it being a preeminent destination for PAs who want to be well equipped by experts in their field, to be leaders in their profession,” said Vice Chair Caroline Grey Bell Sisson, MMS, PA-C, who played a pivotal role in the program’s development.  “It’s a beacon for PAs who crave leadership opportunities.”

Though the curriculum will be challenging, the two-year program was designed with working PAs in mind, offering asynchronous, online coursework to enable PAs to further their education without interrupting their careers.

One Program, Three Tracks

DMSc students can choose from three educational tracks – leadership, research, or education – to fit their interests and desired career trajectory.

“For all three tracks, we’re looking for PA leaders, not just in terms of traditional c-suite leadership, but in terms of innovative thought and application,” Smith said.

Students following the education track will build skills in educational theory, instructional strategies, and scholarly approaches to medical education. The leadership track aims to develop visionary leaders who can drive health care organizations towards improved patient outcomes and greater efficiency.

The research track helps distinguish the Wake Forest DMSc from other programs and will position its graduates to make impactful contributions to medical science and health care policy.

Kelly Conner, PA-C, PhD, who is serving as the DMSc Capstone Course Series Director, underscored the importance of cultivating a new generation of PA researchers.

"There's a significant gap in productive research within the PA profession,” Conner said. “We aim to address this by preparing our graduates to lead and conduct meaningful research projects.”

All three tracks will provide graduates with the knowledge and credentials needed to move their careers forward.

“We want our students to have a seat at the table,” Conner said. “PAs are getting more recognition within the organizations where they practice. Having a doctoral degree will give them entry to even more advanced positions.”

Smith echoed Conner’s sentiment. “I see this as a way for PAs to break through some glass ceilings that have made certain positions less accessible to us,” she said. “Our goals are to equip PAs to influence decisions about how care is provided, drive research that translates into care methodologies, and effectively educate the next generation of PAs.”

Interdisciplinary Insights

One of the program's most distinctive features is its interdisciplinary approach and instruction. By integrating perspectives from business, nursing, and professional studies, the program will foster a broad, collaborative learning environment. This approach not only enriches the educational experience, but also prepares graduates to think holistically about health care challenges, promoting innovative solutions across the spectrum of medical practice.

"Our goal was to not only respond to current educational needs, but also anticipate future trends,” said Sisson. “We analyzed data and worked closely with academic deans and course directors from various schools to create a program that will serve our students’ needs best.”

Sisson and her team’s work led to the article “What Physician Assistants Prefer in a Post- professional Doctorate Program: A Cross-sectional Rating and Rankings Study,” which was published in the June 2023 Journal of Physician Assistant Education.

The DMSc program at Wake Forest University School of Medicine enables PAs to take a step forward in their careers while maintaining the dedication that first drew them to medicine. 

“As PAs our North Star has always been patient care,” Smith said. “To me our DMSc is more than just letters behind your name or an academic achievement. This degree serves as a catalyst for PA's who are called to a larger sense of meaning and purpose, for PAs who are called to an enhanced impact with their patients’ lives and in the communities in which they serve.”

A person standing behind an information booth at at conference.
DMSc Program Director Natalie Smith shared information about the new program at the recent AAPA Conference.