Chatham University

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Getting a little more comfortable with death and dying

Last winter, Victoria Kissell, MPAS ’18, was able to added a facet to her education that not many physician assistants are able to claim.

“We don’t learn how to deal with death in school,” she says. “Because we’re focused on making people better, we tend to push it aside, even though it’s inevitable. Through the Jewish Healthcare Foundation’s Fellowship in Death and Dying, I was able to talk to people who handle it every day, so that if I do have a patient who is terminally ill, I’m more comfortable talking about it.”

Participants meet as a group weekly to discuss readings and perform role plays, and then visit hospitals and other sites where death and dying are not infrequent occurrences, including a hospice and the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. They meet with members of teams who work with patients and families in terminal situations, including hospice and palliative care; social work; and religious support.

“It was interesting to see aspects of death that come into play when it’s a child as opposed to an adult,” says Victoria, “such as who has the right to make decisions about prolonging care. A lot of times, patients—including kids—better understand what’s going on, or have an easier time accepting it than the families, who are the ones pushing for more treatment, and feeling resistance to palliative care and hospice teams stepping in.”

“When people hear hospice and palliative care, they think death,” she continues. “But we learned to push hospice and palliative care as more about improving quality of life than sentencing to death.

We’re not telling families their loved ones are going to die; we’re telling them that we’re going to do everything we can to make them comfortable and live the rest of their days happy, and the way that they want to.”

Victoria feels that the Fellowship has helped her communicate in non-terminal scenarios, too. “Some diseases such as diabetes, depression, or hypertension are difficult for patients to handle,” she says. “They may feel like a death sentence. Patients don’t want to be labeled, or burden their families. I think this training has helped me communicate with patients about these conditions. There’s no reason these patients can’t live long and prosperous lives, as long as their condition is well managed.”

The Fellowship paid off sooner than Victoria might have expected. “On my very first rotation, I had my first patient pass away,” she says. “It was like I was watching the program come to life. Once his cancer was discovered, his family couldn’t understand why we weren’t treating him with chemotherapy and radiation, but he understood that his body wouldn’t be able to handle the treatment. The palliative care team was on board, after a lot of work convincing the family, but not the hospice team because the time went too quickly. The family didn’t want to ‘give up’, but to see the transition care go from aggressive to supportive was amazing.”

“One of the most moving things I learned from the program was something a hospice nurse coordinator said at Children’s,” says Victoria. “She said ‘If you’re going to work with death every day, you better remember to live’. I think that’s important in medicine in general.”

Jewish Healthcare Fellowships are open to all graduate students in Chatham’s School of Health Sciences. Learn more.

The Master of Physician Assistant Studies (MPAS) program at Chatham University provides academic and clinical training that will prepare its graduates to be certified and licensed to practice as extenders to the practicing physician, especially the primary care physician, in a competent and reliable manner.

Patients. Ping. Protocols. PHP. Passion.


As a health professional for over 40 years, I’ve seen many changes. I’ve watched as hospital patients’ rooms have changed from bare walls with up to eight beds to rooms of only one bed, the walls covered in electronics, including oxygen outlets, electronic suction ports, Wi-Fi heart monitors, and electronic IV pumps that control flow rates (and connect to electronic health records). And let’s not forget the new electronic beds that weigh you, speak to you when you try to get up or set off an alarm when you try to get out of bed.

That’s healthcare informatics.

I’ve watched healthcare waiting rooms change from basic painted walls with pictures to lounges with wall-mounted telemonitors that alert family when their loved one moves from the pre-operative room to the operating room to the post-op room to their private patient room. Which is to say that today, healthcare environments offer technologically-enhanced communication that supports not just the patient, but also the family.

In fact, we no longer have to be in a brick and mortar health facility to access health information or to receive healthcare treatments. With the use of the Internet, Wi-Fi, computers, audio/video equipment, mobile apps, etc., we are communicating health information and receiving health services in a variety of virtual ways. Today, an individual can see a medical practitioner, in real time, by clicking a mobile app on their phone from anywhere in the USA.

Health-related technology is advancing faster than the health professional or health organization can keep up with. That’s why academic institutions are beginning to prepare health professionals (in a variety of disciplines) to embrace and use technology. Computerized systems allow professionals to capture, manage and analyze data in brand-new ways. Today we can explore how data can monitor outcomes and correlations (such as using sales data regarding cold medicines to predict a flu epidemic). We can promote healthy living by using alarms on our cell phones as reminders to test our blood sugar levels and to monitor the number of steps we take each day. We have technology that predicts the weather so we can prepare how to dress to meet cold temperatures, reducing the chances of catching a cold.

If you enjoy thinking outside the box, engaging with electronics and health technology, and have a passion for improving the health of people and communities—healthcare informatics may very well be the perfect place for you.”

Through Chatham’s Master of Healthcare Informatics (MHI) professionals in health-related positions can join this revolution of envisioning how technology can be used to help make better decisions, to change practices and processes. To change the future. (And, it must be said, to earn high salaries: As of 2015, the overall average salary for health IT professionals was $111,387.52, according to an annual compensation survey by the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society.)

Read more about exciting healthcare technology innovations—including smart glasses for the visually impaired and a watch that helps with sleep apnea—here and here, and learn more about Chatham’s 30-credit, fully-online MHI here.

Federal Grant Gets Health Sciences Students Asking the Right Questions

Student interviewing patient

What if a broader team of healthcare professionals received training to discuss substance abuse with patients non-judgmentally, and then incorporate such issues into treatment? This is the goal of Chatham’s SBIRT training grant, a three-year, $900,000 program to prepare students across several departments for such real-world encounters.

SBIRT stands for Screening, Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment, a set of evidence-based techniques to identify at-risk patients. Funding comes from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT). For this grant, Chatham partnered with the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy Program Evaluation Research Unit (PERU) and the Allegheny Health Network, “two organizations who had a wealth of experience [who] could be mutually beneficial,” explains Gabrielle Strong, grant manager for the School of Health Sciences.

The grant is specifically tailored to suit programs and degrees within the School of Health Sciences: counseling psychology (PsyD & MSCP), nursing (BSN), occupational therapy (MOT & OTD), physical therapy (DPT), and physician assistant studies (MPAS), with social work (BSW) from the School of Arts, Science & Business joining this year. “One of the things I think is great about the Chatham SBIRT grant is that we are targeting the whole multidisciplinary team,” says Mary Jo Loughran, associate professor and program director of counseling psychology. With multiple departments participating, and specific interdepartmental exercises implemented, “it promotes some interdisciplinary cross-talk,” she says.

“The SBIRT curriculum is incorporated within existing courses and tweaked to make sure it reflects each particular profession,” says Strong. “This addresses student knowledge, but we also want an increase in competency and confidence, so we have students practice cases in role play exercises specific to their profession.”

Motivational interviewing skills are essential to SBIRT; they aim to remove any sense of judgment about the patient from the care provider–avoiding a traditional scenario of scolding a patient for bad behavior and shutting down an avenue for dialogue. “Rather than honing in on the problematic part of the behavior, let’s get in touch with the person’s motivation for wanting to change and help them develop that,” says Loughran. “You’re inviting the person to look at what they want to change.”

Student interviewing patientThe program thrives on continuous feedback from faculty and students about effectiveness of teaching and implementation. Surveys and assessments provide data on what works best, so exercises and techniques can change as needed. “Some things obviously change and morph as we see what the needs are,” says Strong. “We do implement changes based on student feedback.”

That feedback is consistently positive. After the training, students from the OTD program gave detailed accounts of their interactions.

“I didn’t have to ask a lot of questions. [The patient] opened up and kept talking. I was surprised how willing he was to talk with me and problem solve…to limit his drinking.”

Another commented, “I found the information given and techniques practice to be helpful overall to encourage client- directed conversations and resolutions.”

SBIRT has produced measurable results with patients. In one survey, 31 students described how they had used their new skills within
a period of 30 days. Among 305 patient encounters, 164 said they would change their behavior and cut down, and 44 people were referred to treatment.

This story, written by Charles Rosenblum, originally appeared in the Fall 2017 Recorder.

Five Questions with Steve Karas, PT, DSc, CMPT

Name: Steve Karas
Title: Assistant Professor (PT, DSc, CMPT)
Joined Chatham: Jan 2009
Born & Raised: Pittsburgh, PA
Interests: Cycling, Running, Travel, Hemingway



1. What was your first job and what did you learn from it?

My first PT job was at Shadyside hospital. I worked with athletes, patients after joint replacements, patients in the hospital, and those receiving cardiac care. I learned that although medicine tends to compartmentalize, having experience in several areas will strengthen your personal discipline and ability to think and reason.

2. What aspect of your life before teaching best prepared you to do so?

My mom was a teacher, and even when she came home she worked on lesson plans and creative ways to teach. She taught at a lower-income schools with disciplinary issues, but she loved to teach and would talk about the successes of individual students, some of whom were first to attend college in their family. Watching someone who loves what they do played a role in my decision to teach.

3. What makes teaching at Chatham special for you? 

I graduated from the first PT class. I was able to come back to be a teaching assistant, then help in class, and when the faculty position was offered to me, I was very grateful. I felt like it was my opportunity to influence the next generation of physical therapists and work among a very impressive faculty. I feel bad for people who don’t like their job, because I love mine.

4. What is your favorite thing about working with Chatham students?

 The moment I realize they know more than me.

5What one thing would your students be surprised to know about you?

I am jealous of them. They are learning at a time when information is readily available and the world is smaller than ever. They are all in a position to change the world.

Steve Karas is an assistant professor in the Physical Therapy program.  When he’s not working, he’d rather be watching the sun set over Grace Bay with a San Pellegrino and lime.


interprofessional education in the health sciences

operation sn
Image courtesy Operation Task Force

Here’s one goal of Chatham’s 2015-2016 Interprofessional Education (IPE) kickoff event:

Understand a significant multidisciplinary health care issue that impacts patient/clients across all health care arenas.

With the selection of Dr. Jim Withers of UPMC Mercy, Chatham’s IPE Task Force hit the nail on the head. On September 17, Withers gave a moving presentation called “Street Medicine in Pittsburgh”* about the work of Operation Safety Net, an organization he helped found that brings medical care to homeless individuals.

His rapt audience? Two hundred and fifty Chatham students from the counseling psychology, nursing, occupational therapy, physician assistant studies, and physical therapy programs who are participating in this year’s IPE educational sequence.

“Have the courage to move into things that are challenging. You’ll learn a lot and feel better about yourself as a clinician.”
– Dr. Jim Withers

You might consider Withers’s work Problem-Based Learning at its most pure. “We were learning how to learn,” Dr. Withers—named by CNN as one of their 10 Heroes of 2015—told students. “We were leaning how to create healthcare not in a clinic, but grounded in the realities of people.”

It was an especially germane point to make: Reality is nothing if not interdisciplinary. That’s one reason why IPE is rapidly gaining ground internationally, with institutions free to define what it means and how it is best inculcated.

At Chatham, IPE is a two-semester program in which interdisciplinary groups of 10-12 students are assigned to one of six Chatham IPE Task Force faculty facilitators from disciplines spanning the School of Health Sciences. Groups and facilitators meet outside of class, once in the fall and once in the spring. Through case studies, discussion, lectures, videos, group activities, and role play, they work on strengthening competencies as set forth by the Interprofessional Education Collaborative:

  • Values/Ethics for Interprofessional Practice
  • Roles/Responsibilities
  • Interprofessional Communication
  • Teams and Teamwork

“The goal of interprofessional education at Chatham is to prepare students in nursing, psychology, physician assistant studies and occupational and physical therapy to learn from and about each other’s professions in order to practice as part of a collaborative, patient centered team. It is well documented that when practitioners from various backgrounds communicate and work together, the highest quality of care is delivered,” says School of Health Sciences Dean Pat Downey, PT, PhD, DPT.

“Our programs have incorporated interprofessional activities in the classroom for years,” says Jodi Schreiber OTD, OTR/L, Chair of Chatham’s IPE Task Force and Assistant Professor of Occupational Therapy. “But when we saw that it could be formalized into an educational sequence, we realized that doing so would be a big advantage to our students.”

Chatham has had an IPE Task Force since 2013, and is strongly committed to strengthening the program. In 2014, the Task Force gave three presentations at an international conference. Topics included IPE challenges, opportunities and research; student perceptions; and supporting competency and identity development.

“We want to see if IPE makes a difference when students go into clinical practice,” says Schreiber.

Upon completion of the sequence, a total of nine hours, students are issued a certificate of participation, appropriate for inclusion in a professional portfolio. “Placement coordinators that we talk to are impressed that our students have interprofessional experience,” notes Schreiber.

Serving on the Task Force along with Schneider are Susan HawkinsStacie Agnesi, and Kelly Donkers from physician assistant studies; MaryDee Fisher from nursing; Sarah Jameson from physical therapy; and Anthony Goreczny from psychology.

* You can watch “Street Medicine in Pittsburgh” here.