Although the top physician assistant degree programs have a demanding classroom component, they’re far from strictly academic. Once you graduate from a PA program, you should be prepared to sit for the certification exam and begin working in a direct patient care role. This means you need plenty of clinical experience before you graduate.
Classroom First, Clinicals Second
Physician assistant programs typically focus on classroom learning during their first year, called the didactic year. During this year, you will have to complete graduate-level coursework in topics like biochemistry, microbiology, anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, pathophysiology, physical diagnosis, clinical laboratory science and more, according to the American Academy of PAs. It’s an intense and science-heavy curriculum that prepares you for real clinical work.
Your second year of PA school begins your clinical rotations. Every accredited master’s degree program in physician assistant studies requires at least 2,000 hours of clinical rotation experience, according to the American Academy of PAs.
Remember, physician assistants aren’t just a helping hand for doctors during difficult procedures, although they can do this, too. They practice medicine under the supervision of a doctor. This means they need to fully understand the science of medicine themselves.
What to Expect From Clinical Experience as a PA
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As a PA student doing clinical rotations, you’re likely to find yourself in settings that range from doctor’s offices to ambulatory clinics and hospitals to nursing homes. You may devote one to two months to each clinical rotation, also referred to as clerkships. Some core rotations are required for you to graduate from PA school, while others are elective rotations that you choose based on your interest in a medical specialty. You will likely complete clinical rotations in family medicine, internal medicine, general surgery and emergency surgery, if nothing else. Rotations in pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, psychology and neurology may be required or optional for a PA. Still other rotations are even more specialized, such as a rotation in cardiology, oncology or interventional radiology. Clinical rotations may require you to travel.
Unlike shadowing a healthcare professional, PA students completing their clinical rotations don’t just observe. They play a direct role in the action of providing patient care under the guidance of established health professionals, gaining hands-on supervised experience in diagnosing and treating medical conditions. At the end of a rotation, their knowledge and skills are evaluated by an assessment completed by the preceptor who supervises their rotation as well as their performance on an exam specific to that specialty.
The clinical portion of PA school tests much more than what you learned in the classroom. Through this experience, you will develop the adaptability and flexibility to handle the fast-paced and demanding world of practicing medicine, the American Academy of PAs reported. You can make the most out of your rotations by taking the initiative to volunteer for new and complex tasks and to look ahead at your expectations for the next day (though these may change) and brush up on your knowledge of these conditions or procedures, according to the American Academy of PAs.
Your clinical rotations are more than a chance to develop a breadth of clinical skills. They’re also an opportunity to explore what branches of medicine you may want to specialize in over the course of your career. The reality of the day-to-day work involved in a medical specialty is sometimes very different from what aspiring PAs expected from that specialty. Spending time working in a variety of different clinical settings and specialties during your rotations allows you to develop a deeper understanding of what challenges you, what you enjoy doing and what you have a knack for in the field of medicine.
Choosing a specialty you won’t get sick of is important, but the stakes aren’t as high as you might think. PAs have unusually high levels of career flexibility and specialty mobility, and half of PAs change their specialties at least once over their career.
Beyond the Clinical Year
One of the reasons performing actual hands-on clinical work during your PA program is so important is because physician assistants don’t undergo the extensive residency training doctors do after they finish their degree. For physicians, residency can last three to seven years, and the earliest you can take the licensing exam is a year into residency. A PA can take their credentialing exam, the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE), as early as one week after finishing school and get started as a licensed physician assistant shortly after. Although the extent of your skills and job duties will increase as you continue to gain experience, you can be considered fully qualified as a physician assistant a lot earlier in your career than you would as a physician.
The scope of services you can provide is outlined in a written agreement with your supervising doctor. As you gain experience and develop more complex hands-on skills, the scope of services you can provide may increase.