Will Alexander hopes to make physician assistants more accepted in Australia.
With graduates facing dire employment prospects, James Cook University is being criticised for offering the last remaining training program which certifies physician assistants in Australia.
The introduction of physician assistants was meant to improve healthcare in regional areas which face doctor shortages.
But it was met with fierce opposition from nurses' unions and the Australian Medical Association.
In the US, there are 120,000 physician assistants who perform medical duties — including making diagnoses, writing prescriptions and performing minor surgical tasks — while under a doctor's supervision.
In Australia, Queensland is the only state that has allowed physician assistants to work in the public health system.
JCU started teaching the physician assistant course at its Townsville campus in 2012, only months after two Australian universities abandoned similar programs.
The course was aimed at mid-career health workers like paramedics.
Since it started teaching the course, JCU has enrolled 75 students and produced 15 graduates.
But 7.30 has discovered just two physician assistants are employed in Queensland's public health system.
Both work in the emergency department at Townsville Hospital.
This year the university suspended all new student enrolments, but 16 students are continuing with their studies.
7.30 understands three students have made official complaints about the course, but JCU refused to confirm this, citing "policy and privacy considerations".
Hoping to leave his career as a paramedic, Derek Greaves enrolled in the physician assistant course at JCU.
He graduated in 2017 but has been unable to find a job, and has returned to work as a paramedic.
"It's soul-sapping. This has actually damaged my family [and] they've actually damaged me," he said.
"Why have a course where there's no outcome?"
The degrees cost $27,000 and many students quit full-time employment in their final year of study to complete clinical placements.
"I would say if you really want to do the course, go to America or England," Mr Greaves said.
"Both of those countries actually have physician assistants and they're actually working in the health system."
David Ashard left his job as a paramedic six years ago to study at the University of Queensland to become one of the first physician assistants in Australia.
"Lifestyle, employability, monetary factors — it was just a really good job," he said.
"I thought, 'Well, if this is going to be anything like it is in America this is going to be fantastic.'"
"I personally was pretty naive about what was going to be required to introduce the new position into Australia."
After graduating, Mr Ashard got a job as a physician assistant working with the Aboriginal community at Cherbourg in Central Queensland.
But since the clinic lost funding in 2015, he has returned to work as a paramedic.
"We all knew that we were going to be pioneers," he said.
"I don't think too many of us understood the ramifications of that."
David Ashard has returned to work as a paramedic after failing to find work as a physician assistant.
Medical turf war
PHOTO: Will Alexander is president of the Australian Society of Physician Assistants. (ABC News: Jerry Rickard)
The University of Queensland axed its course in 2011, partly because of "the significant uncertainty about the future of a physician assistant workforce in Australia".
Perth's Edith Cowan University scrapped plans for a course for the same reason.
Physician assistants are not eligible for a Medicare provider number, which significantly increases the cost to either the patient or their employer, and the profession is not registered by the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA).
Beth Mohle, secretary for the Queensland Nurses' Union, said physician assistants could take clinical placements and training positions from young doctors and threaten nursing positions.
"We've already got a large number of regulated health professionals, some of whom aren't currently working to their full scope of practice, such as registered nurses, registered midwives," she said.
"Is a new role that currently is not regulated and hasn't got the same accountability mechanism the answer to the problems of the bush?"
Despite the poor employment prospects for graduates, JCU's dean of medicine, Professor Richard Murray, defended the physician assistant course.
"We've made an important contribution partly by merely providing the opportunity for those who are enthusiastic about this as an emerging profession," he said.
"No university degree or course comes with a money-back guarantee of employment, that's just a reality."
The president of the Australian Society of Physician Assistants, Will Alexander, said he was working towards the profession being able to charge for Medicare.
"[If successful] we will be able to bill for the services that we provide, which would greatly increase our employability, particularly in the rural and remote regions," Mr Alexander said.
Article provided by and published by the Australian Broadcast Channel