As more and more U.S. physicians reach retirement age, and the nation’s population continues to grow and live longer with chronic illnesses, the demand for new frontline health-care professionals is increasing rapidly across the nation.

That is the need St. Ambrose University officials said they want to serve through the creation of a new master of physician assistant degree program, the first of its kind offered in the Quad-Cities and western Illinois region.

During a formal announcement Tuesday at the Davenport campus, officials said the program will accept its first class in June 2014, with only 30 slots to fill through a competitive process. Those students also will work at clinical sites in the Quad-Cities and nationally.

St. Ambrose’s already “robust” offering of medical programs — with more than 525 students currently enrolled — gave the university the platform it needed to launch new training for this fast-growing, well-paying profession, college president Joan Lescinski said.

Two accredited physician assistant programs already are located in Iowa, at the University of Iowa and Des Moines University. The University of Iowa admits a class of 25 students, and Des Moines University allows up to 50 students to join the program.

Of the six similar programs in Illinois, five are in the Chicago area and one is at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.

“From a Quad-City standpoint, we will be a destination for these sharp young people, and hopefully many of them will stay here,” said Davenport cardiologist Michael Giudici, who also serves on the St. Ambrose board of trustees. “From a physician’s standpoint, those people who will be training at St. Ambrose will be rotating through here. We’ll have the opportunity to teach them and put them through a two-year job interview, kind of like an internship.”

Physician assistants are responsible for all elements of patient care, including ordering diagnostic tests and prescribing medicines, but they do so under the direction of a supervising physician.

Based on projected needs in rural states, the program will emphasize primary care, new director Clare Kennedy said.

Applicants for the 27-month program will be required to have earned their undergraduate degrees and have completed specific prerequisite courses and at least 500 hours of health-care experience.

Once accepted, the students will begin classroom and laboratory studies that include anatomy, pathology, physician examination and clinical medicine during the first 15 months. That will be followed by a year of clinical rotations under supervision of physicians and other specialists.

Graduates will be eligible to seek licensure to practice in one or more of the 50 states.

Currently, St. Ambrose is seeking provisional accreditation from the Accreditation Review Council for Physician Assistants and expects to graduate its first class in December 2016.

Davenport Mayor Bill Gluba, a graduate of St. Ambrose, praised the university for understanding the country’s health-care needs and the economic impact this could bring those working in and benefiting from the profession.

“You are on the cutting edge,” he said, adding that physician assistants can save people money on their health care, making it more accessible. “It’s all about serving people who are underserved.”