PA Leadership Series: Ken Ferrell, PA

If you read nothing else on this website, take the time to read this.

Ken Ferrell is the last surviving member of the very first class of Physician Assistants at Duke University which was started in 1965. Actually, to be more accurate, I should mention that they were called “Physician’s Assistants” back then- gasp! He was very kind in responding to my email, and answered questions for our PA Leadership Series. Our profession is just over fifty years old, still in its infancy, and he has watched the transition from the very first day of the pilot program to the profession as it is now. I’m excited to share what he has to say!

Tell us a little about yourself? Name, how long you’ve been a PA, where you went to school and anything else you’d like to add.

I was blessed to be one of four selected to be in the inaugural PA class at Duke University in 1965. All four were ex-navy corpsmen and all of us were married. I was a PA for forty years and retired in 2007.

How was your program was started, how did you become involved with it?

In the spring of 1965, there was an article in the Durham, NC newspaper telling about a new program that Dr. Eugene Stead was planning to start in the fall of that year. I was on active duty at the time and was serving on the USS Ashland in the Caribbean. A friend of mine in Durham saw the article, knew I was scheduled to be released from active duty that fall, and wrote to see if I might be interested. I wrote him back and said absolutely! He arranged interviews for me at Duke with Dr. Stead and others for when my ship returned to port in Virginia. After the interviews, I had to go back to my ship and we left for the Mediterranean. I received my letter of acceptance while in the Mediterranean. The Navy flew me back to the States and released me from active duty in time to be at Duke for the beginning of classes.

Tell us about the program’s curriculum, length, and degree awarded. What was your experience in your PA program?

The first year curriculum included anatomy and physiology, chemistry, biology, pharmacology, clinical lab, clinical medicine, patient evaluation, electrocardiography, medical instrumentation, and animal surgery. The second year consisted of rotations in eight different areas of Duke Medical Center and at least one outside physician. I had a very rewarding experience in PA school because the instructors were eager to please Dr. Stead and the students were determined to make the pilot program succeed.

What is/was your role as a leader in the initial PA group?

During PA school, I was not a leader primarily due to my young age. The other three students were 26 or 27 and I was 21. In 1968, the Duke PA graduates and students founded the AAPA. I was selected to be the chairman of the ethics committee.

What did your typical day look like once you graduated?

After graduation, I worked for a professor of medicine named Herbert O. Sieker. Dr. Sieker had a very large internal medicine practice and was chief of the pulmonary and allergy division. As I matured as a PA and as a person, leadership qualities became more evident.

How was your practice set up? What was the structure and what is your relationship with your supervising physician like?

Our practice consisted of in-patients and out-patients. Each day began and ended with hospital rounds. I made notes of things that needed to be done. Between rounds, most of my time was spent doing new patient work-ups in the clinic and returning phone calls. The relationship I had with my supervising physician could not have been any better. I was proud to be referred to as Dr. Sieker’s PA.

How did physicians receive the profession? How did the nurses you worked with and other hospital staff view the profession?

Initially, PAs were well received by physicians because of Dr. Stead’s clout. He was highly respected and admired. Later on, our acceptance was enhanced because the supervising physicians told their colleagues how helpful we were. Nurses who worked with a PA, other hospital staff, and patients received us well and quickly figured out how they could use us to their advantage. The only negative comments that I know of were from nurses who had not worked with a PA.

Did you divide your time into clinical and administrative tasks?

My first twenty years as a PA were clinical. Then I started taking on more and more administrative responsibilities. Much of my time was spent dealing with reimbursement, coding, compliance, and Medicare regulations.

Did you pursue a leadership role or was it offered to you?

An administrative/leadership role was offered to me. When my supervising physician had to retire due to medical reasons, the director of the Private Diagnostic Clinic at Duke asked me if I would consider switching from being a clinical PA to heading up a reimbursement team within the PDC.

How did you prepare for your role as a PA leader? Did you take any leadership type courses prior to starting your program?

My leadership qualities have come primarily from on-the-job training. The PDC did send me to a Reimbursement Manager training program when my responsibilities changed.

Did you have room or opportunities to grow in your leadership position? Are/were you satisfied with your position? If you could do it all over again, would you?

I’m sure opportunities for growth were available, but I found myself working harder and longer and enjoying it less. I really missed the patient contact. Without question, I would be a PA all over again. If I could start my career over, I would never stop being a clinical PA.

Do you think PAs are adequately educated about how to be a leader? If not, do you have any suggestions on what should be taught?

I’m not familiar with all the courses being offered to PA students these days. If not already included, an ethics class would be helpful.

Do you have any suggestions for newly graduated PAs interested in becoming leaders in their community?

Remember that you are being watched and in many cases, being looked up to. It’s very important for PAs to be good role models. Resist becoming so busy that you do not have time to be a good listener. Listening lets patients and everyone in your community know you care.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

PAs were birthed to complement (not compete with) the physician. Any attempt to disconnect the two is a huge mistake in my opinion. Our purpose is clearly stated in our name.

I thoroughly enjoy speaking to PA students at events such as white coat ceremonies and graduations. Any PA program interested in having me come and speak is asked to contact John Bielinski at CME4Life.

Ken Ferrell

Duke PAP ‘67

Again, I can’t say enough thank yous to Ken. He is an inspiration and I’m so thankful for his guidance, willingness to answer my questions and share his story! Also I want to thank John Bielinski for connecting me with Ken, I am so very grateful for his support!


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Physician Assistant, Owner and Blogger at EmpoweredPAs.com. Currently practicing in a Pediatric Emergency Department, overseeing and developing evidence-based clinical practice guidelines with teams of amazing people, supporting and mentoring Pre-PA and PA Students, with a hope to advance our profession and give PAs the tools and resouces they need to advance their careers.