Grades and test scores alone aren’t enough to get into the top physician assistant degree programs. These graduate-level programs routinely require work experience in a related area of healthcare, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). PA schools often call this experience “direct patient care experience,” and both the amount and the quality of that experience matters to the success of your application.
What Counts as Direct Patient Care Experience?
Any experience working in a medical or healthcare setting can constitute direct patient care experience for the purpose of your PA school application. However, physician assistant programs tend not to view all types of healthcare experience as equally valuable when preparing you for the life of a PA. Experience in a hands-on clinical role as a registered nurse, for instance, is looked upon more favorably than experience in an administrative role that happens to be based in a healthcare facility, like medical secretary, The Houston Chronicle reported.
The best type of direct patient care experience for PA students is a role that includes extensive hands-on clinical responsibilities. Nurse, nursing assistant and nursing aide are among these roles. So are EMT, paramedic and military medic. You’re also generally considered to have high-quality experience in any kind of licensed or certified health professional role or in a role like physical therapy assistant or athletic trainer. Experience carrying out diagnostic testing, in a role like radiology technician, sonographer or phlebotomist, also tends to count as high-quality healthcare experience. Occasionally, even healthcare professionals in roles that require doctoral education, like dentist and physical therapist, may decide to go to PA school. These experiences also count toward clinical patient care requirements.
Somewhat less valuable to PA school admissions departments are roles in which you have only a moderate amount of hands-on clinical experience and responsibility for making decisions. These moderate-quality roles might include medical translator, patient care advocate and aides – not assistants – in physical and occupational therapy. In these roles, you do work with patients, but you might not get a great deal of opportunity to develop hands-on clinical skills. The lowest quality of experience tends to involve little actual clinical experience at all. If you’re a receptionist as a medical office, a medical records processor or a pharmacy technician whose primary responsibility is running the cash register, your clinical skills are limited.
The most common type of prior healthcare employment for PA school students is nursing assistant, according to the Physician Assistant Education Association. More than 30 percent of students reported having this background. Another 26 percent of PA students reported working as a medical assistant, and 23 had formerly worked as a medical scribe. More than 19 percent of applicants worked as an EMT or paramedic at some point. Nearly 9 percent of PA students once worked as an emergency room technician, and nearly as many had experience as a home health aide.
Roles like phlebotomist, clinical research coordinator or assistant, physical therapy assistant and pharmacy technician rounded out the top 10 most common prior employment roles for PA students. Some students reported having multiple types of experience.
How Much Experience Is Necessary to Get Into PA School?
Fulfilling the patient care experience requirement for PA school is no small matter. Applicants who get into a graduate physician assistant degree program have, on average, 4,000 hours – about two years of full-time work – of direct patient care experience. At a minimum, students are often urged to get at least one year of full-time work experience in a healthcare role. That’s a lot more experience in a clinical setting than aspiring doctors are expected to have.
PA school applicants may also be expected to have more hands-on experience than their medical school counterparts. An aspiring doctor may get into medical school with only experience shadowing an established physician, but for a PA program, this experience may be seen as “low-quality experience” due to a lack of real clinical responsibility. Many PA programs would rather see experience in a role like nursing assistant, registered nurse or paramedic, according to the BLS.
Schools may calculate direct patient care hours differently depending on the type of experience. While a nurse can use all of their work hours toward this requirement, a medical secretary may be allowed to use only a fraction of their hours toward this requirement.