BY Gail Fagan
A team of three students from the Physician Assistant Studies program at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley topped 26 other teams to take first place in the Texas Academy of Physician Assistants (TAPA) 2016 Medical Challenge Bowl.
PA students Benny Lopez, Arlene Cano and Megan Castillo are members of the victorious team of Vaqueros who competed in the Jeopardy-style medical quiz competition, held Feb. 20 in Houston during the TAPA spring conference.
Team members said they were especially proud to have won this year, since the current TAPA president is Elias Villarreal, clinical associate professor and academic coordinator for UTRGV’s PA program.
“We did this not only for us and the program but for Dr. Villarreal,” Castillo said. “It made him so proud. He was grinning and so happy.”
The UTRGV team, which competed against six other Texas PA schools, dethroned last year’s winner, University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth. Other schools participating included Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center-Dallas and University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
The last time the university’s PA team won the TAPA Bowl was in 2005, when the UTRGV legacy institution UT Pan American team defeated UT Southwestern Medical Center, which had been the reigning champs for four straight years.
“As the winners were being announced the audience starting chanting ‘RGV,’” said UTRGV PA Program Director Frank Ambriz, who was joined at the competition by a large number of first-year and pre-PA society students. “This is the first year that we have competed under UTRGV and it was a great feeling to promote our new university.”
Teams competed in a round-robin format with preliminary rounds, semi-final rounds and one final round. Questions addressed 13 different organ systems, like pulmonary and cardiovascular, for example, and seven task areas, including history-taking and performing physical examinations; using laboratory and diagnostic studies; formulating a most likely diagnosis; health maintenance; clinical intervention; pharmaceutical therapeutics; and applying basic science concepts.
The UTRGV team, all volunteers, said they spent many hours practicing, answering the hundreds of questions they had gathered.
“We are in clinical rotations now, so for me it was challenging to balance my homework and assignments toward my clinical rotation. During my relaxation time, I was reviewing questions,” Lopez said.
Team members said their strategy – come out strong and build points early in the final round – paid off. They also credit their success to the team-based learning incorporated into UTRGV’s PA program, which divides its first-year didactic and second-year clinical students into learning teams of diverse skills and backgrounds.
“It really helped because we had to work as a team,” Caro said.
They said a big benefit for them as a team was being able to feed off of each other’s different backgrounds and skills.
Lopez, 27, from Edcouch-Elsa, earned his undergraduate degree in biomedical science from Texas A&M at Kingsville and was a medical assistant in a family clinic before entering the program.
Caro, 25, from La Joya and a graduate of MED High in Mercedes, earned her undergraduate degree from Texas A&M at Kingsville and spent two years as a science teacher and five years as a pharmacy technician prior to becoming a PA student.
Castillo, 25, from Houston, graduated from Austin College with a degree in neuroscience and worked as an ER technician at St. Luke’s Hospital in Houston. Her favorable experience with PAs when she had a lung removed prompted her entry into the program.
The UTRGV team will head to San Antonio to compete against PA teams from across the nation May 15 at the National Medical Challenge Bowl, held since 1991 during the annual national conference of the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA).
The team – which tagged itself with the name “Super Specific” – has prepared a 3-inch-thick AAPA Challenge Bowl binder of every question they could find to prepare for the national competition.
“I’ve done a lot of Googling, hunting for questions,” Castillo said, laughing.
They admitted to being nervous about competing against top-ranked PA schools from around the country.
“No university from Texas has ever won the national PA Medical Challenge Bowl,” Caro said. “I don’t think words can describe how proud I’d feel winning in our home state, and to represent our school.”
There are 146 accredited physician assistant programs in the United States.
UTRGV’s PA program began in 2000 at UT Pan American and became accredited in 2001. Since its inception, it has been the only one of its kind in Texas not on a medical campus. There currently are 100 students in the PA program – 50 in the first-year class and 50 in their second year.
The Texas Academy of Physician Assistants, was established as a nonprofit organization in 1975. It is the leading PA organization in Texas serving the profession through professional development, education, representation, legislative advocacy and a commitment to team-based care. TAPA, which has a membership of nearly 3,000 physician assistants and students, is a fully chartered constituent chapter of the AAPA.