Written By Kristine Hojnicki

April 24, 2024
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Leocadia Conlon

Leocadia Conlon.

Leocadia Conlon’s journey to becoming a leading physician assistant (PA), educator, and researcher has been shaped by resilience and a deep commitment to healthcare accessibility. She began her career as a midshipman at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, however, unforeseen health issues redirected her trajectory towards the PA profession. 

“I was exposed to the work that PAs do for the first time when I was a patient myself,” she explained. “If I’m being honest, my initial interest was because of the field’s ties with the military as the first PAs were individuals who came out of military service. I was first generation college student in my family, and I was not familiar with how to navigate college and a profession. So, a career in the military was appealing.”

But Conlon’s career evolved significantly after graduating from PA school, where she completed a fellowship in hepatology and liver transplant medicine at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, MD 

“My career really became a pathway for what the physician assistant profession was intended to do—filling gaps in care, whether those are gaps in providers in different medical specialties or in different geographic areas,” she explained.

Bridging Gaps in Care and Education

As Conlon’s professional path progressed, she found herself diversifying her experience based on the variety of opportunities that were presented to her. She specialized in hepatology, internal medicine, and women’s health to address needs in underserved communities.

“After completing a fellowship in hepatology and working in the field of liver transplant, I was recruited into an internal medical practice in Virginia that was seeing a lot of patients with hepatitis C, hepatitis B, and fatty liver disease,” she said. “There was a lack of specialist to refer to at that time, so I was hired to help with the initial screening and intervention for patients with liver disease.” It was at this practice that there was also a unmet need in women’s health care, and an OBGYN in the area partnered with the internal medicine practice to train the PAs in some GYN procedures to alleviate the backlog of GYN referrals.

In 2006, Conlon moved to Hawaii, where she continued her practice in hepatology and helped establish a family medicine practice focused on women’s healthcare. The move to Hawaii was not just a career change but a personal journey that deeply connected her with the community she served.

During this time, she also co-founded the Hawaii Collaborative Health Initiative, a nonprofit organization that looked at improving maternal-child healthcare outcomes on neighboring islands.

“I have a master’s degree in public health, so I worked with a neonatologist, using my expertise in grant writing and needs assessments to help build a sustainable program that aimed to build neonatal training and neonatal response teams on neighbor islands,” she said.

Flourishing in Research & Education

In 2012, family obligations took Conlon back to the Washington, DC area, where she started teaching while continuing her clinical practice. This dual role allowed her to bring valuable real-world experience into the classroom, enriching her teaching with practical insights and a deep understanding of patient care dynamics.

She taught at Shenandoah University and George Washington University, both nationally ranked among the top twenty PA programs in the nation. These experiences cemented her dedication to education and her desire to influence the next generation of PAs.

“PAs are a really special and passionate group of people who are committed to improving access to healthcare. It was a unique and special experience to not only be working in the field from a clinical perspective but also work with an energized group of students through my teaching opportunities,” she said.

Even while she taught, Conlon was committed to her clinical work, practicing at a free medical clinic where she developed programs for hepatitis C screening and treatment, and women’s health initiatives.

“It was an opportunity for me to bring all my specialties into practice at one place that was really underserved,” she said. “In the first year, we treated over 200 patients with hepatitis C. These were patients with no medical insurance who would have otherwise had progression of liver disease and poor health outcomes.

While living in the DC area, Conlon also pursued a PhD in Translational Health Science from the George Washington University School of Medicine. Unsurprisingly, given her diverse professional experience, Conlon’s PhD research delved into developing a better understanding of barriers and facilitators to implementation of clinical practice guidelines in clinical practice. Specifically, her research focused on  the diagnosis and treatment of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)in the adolescent population. Her research focus aimed to improve patient outcomes and enhance clinical practice, further showcasing her commitment to healthcare advancement.

“What I aimed to do with my research is show barriers and facilitators in primary care practice for treating PCOS. It helps in determining how to expand treatment and education among both patients and providers,” she said. 

Boomeranging Back to the Islands 

In 2022, Conlon’s journey came full circle when she returned to Hawaii and was presented with the opportunity spearhead Hawaii Pacific University’s new hybrid PA program. This role allows her to leverage her extensive experience as a PA, a PA educator, and her passion for addressing gaps in care into a curriculum that addresses local and broader healthcare disparities. “It’s really a dream come true to be a part of this program,” she said.

Conlon’s approach to PA education integrates the program’s mission to advance health equity into the clinical medicine curriculum. She emphasized the importance of addressing social determinants of health and systemic issues within the healthcare system throughout the HPU PA education experience. 

“We ensure that our mission of serving the underrepresented communities of Hawaiʻi to advance health equity runs through our program,” she explained.

Looking ahead, Conlon is focused on addressing the shortage of PAs in Hawaiʻi and ensuring the representation of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities in the healthcare sector.

“One of the most pressing issues facing the PA profession today is reaching individuals who may face barriers in accessing PA education,” she said. 

Conlon explained that HPU’s hybrid delivery model of the PA curriculum can break down barriers, whether it’s removing the cost-prohibitive-ness of a potential student moving to Honolulu or creating a learning environment that breaks the traditional model of PA education—sitting in a classroom, 8 hours a day, for an entire year of didactic work.

“We want to help those who have different learning preferences and promote the critical thinking skills that are needed of a physician assistant in a clinical setting.”

But in the end, she said it really comes down to exposing people to the PA profession as a whole and how vital it is to the healthcare system.

“In Hawaiʻi, we employ only 0.3% of the total PA population in our nation,” Conlon said. “We need to build a pipeline of individuals in the state who are from Hawaiʻi to fill critical gaps in the healthcare workforce and advance health equity.” Dr. Conlon not only brings a wealth of experience and a robust teaching pedigree to HPU but also embodies the qualities of a leader who is committed to innovation and inclusivity in healthcare education. Through her leadership, HPU’s hybrid PA program is poised to make a significant impact on healthcare delivery in Hawaii and beyond.

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