Patient Care Experience for PA School: What You Need to Know

April 26, 2024
8 min read


Reviewed by:

Jonathan Preminger

Former Admissions Committee Member, Hofstra-Northwell School of Medicine

Reviewed: 4/26/24

Are you interested in learning about patient care experience for PA school? Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about the process.  

Patient care experience is the hands-on interaction with patients in healthcare settings. It's vital for aspiring Physician Assistants (PAs) because it bridges theory with practice, demonstrating your commitment to healthcare.

This article is your essential guide to understanding why patient care experience matters for PA school admissions. We'll get into the requirements, provide insights on relevant experience, and more. Whether you're starting your journey or looking to enhance your existing experience, read on to become a standout PA school applicant.

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Patient Care Experience Requirements for PA School

PAs, as highly trained professionals, play a crucial role in healthcare teams. This guide details the steps and requirements to become a PA, including education, certification, and licensing.

Education Requirements

PA schools require you to have education from an accredited program recognized by ARC-PA. While most programs require an undergraduate degree, some offer a pre-professional phase for recent high school graduates or those with partial college credit. Also, keep in mind that some PA schools don’t require the GRE.

This phase lasts 4 to 6 years, including undergraduate coursework, before advancing to the professional phase. Inquire with institutions about program availability and requirements.

Prerequisite Courses

PA programs generally have prerequisite coursework requirements that applicants must fulfill for admission. These prerequisites ensure that incoming students possess a solid background in essential subjects, particularly in the sciences. Common prerequisites include:

  • Anatomy
  • Physiology
  • Biochemistry
  • Biology
  • Microbiology
  • Chemistry
  • Organic Chemistry
  • English Composition/Writing
  • Genetics
  • Medical Terminology
  • Psychology (general)
  • Statistics

Healthcare Experience

Many PA programs require hands-on healthcare experience, which is vital for building the skills and knowledge needed for success. Applicants typically need a certain amount of experience, depending on the school they’re applying to. 

PA Program Curriculum

PA programs typically span around 27 months, equivalent to three academic years, and culminate in the awarding of a master's degree. These programs offer a comprehensive curriculum that combines classroom instruction with clinical rotations, ensuring students receive a well-rounded education.

Classroom Instruction

In the classroom phase, PA students delve into various subjects to gain the knowledge and skills needed for effective patient diagnosis and treatment. Here is a list of common classroom topics:

  • Anatomy
  • Physiology
  • Biochemistry
  • Pharmacology
  • Physical Diagnosis
  • Pathophysiology
  • Microbiology
  • Clinical Laboratory Science
  • Behavioral Science
  • Medical Ethics

These subjects collectively form the comprehensive education that prepares future PAs for their vital roles in healthcare.

Clinical Rotations

PA students engage in extensive clinical rotations, totaling over 2,000 hours, as a vital component of their training. These rotations offer invaluable real-world experience in patient care.

Clinical rotations cover a wide array of healthcare settings, with a primary focus on primary care within different departments. Students participate in rotations within the following departments:

  • Family Medicine
  • Internal Medicine
  • Obstetrics and Gynecology
  • Pediatrics
  • General Surgery
  • Emergency Medicine

These rotations allow students to apply their classroom knowledge in practical clinical settings, guided by experienced healthcare professionals.

Certification and Licensing

After completing an accredited PA program, graduates can take the PANCE administered by the NCCPA. Passing this exam allows them to use the title Physician Assistant-Certified or PA-C.

State Licensing

To become a PA, you need state licensure, typically requiring graduation from an accredited PA program and passing the PANCE. Note that each state may have specific additional requirements, so research thoroughly for compliance.

Certification Maintenance

Maintaining national certification as a PA involves completing 100 hours of continuing medical education (CME) credits every two years. Additionally, PAs are required to take a recertification exam known as the Physician Assistant National Recertifying Exam (PANRE) every ten years.

Resources and Further Information

For aspiring PAs, information about accredited programs, certification, state licensing, and professional development is available on the ARC-PA and PAEA websites. These resources guide individuals on their journey to a fulfilling healthcare career.

Patient Care Experience Requirements By Program

When considering patient care experience, it's essential to recognize that each college may have specific requirements. In the table below, we’ve outlined the type of patient care and the minimum hours required from some of the country’s top PA programs.

College Type of Patient Care Experience Minimum Hours Required
Yale University Either paid or volunteer experiences 1,000 hours
Emory University Paid experiences 2,000 hours
University of Washington Paid experiences 2,000 hours
University of Florida Does not specify 2,000 hours
University of Utah Paid experiences 2,000 hours
University of Colorado Denver Does not specify No minimum amount of hours required
University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center Either paid or volunteer experiences No minimum amount of hours required
Baylor College of Medicine Either paid or volunteer experiences No minimum amount of hours required
University of South Carolina Either paid or volunteer experiences No minimum amount of hours required
University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus Does not specify No minimum amount of hours required

This list includes both highly competitive and relatively accessible PA schools. Find out what program aligns with your goals and makes sense for you. 

For instance, you might be drawn to a tough and competitive PA program known for its challenging courses and extensive clinical training. On the other hand, you could lean towards a program that's easier to get into but emphasizes working with the community and primary care. Your choice should match your career goals, learning style, and where you want to study. 

What Counts as Patient Care Experience for PA School?

These programs typically seek applicants who have practical exposure to healthcare settings, as it demonstrates a commitment to the profession and readiness for rigorous training.

Direct Patient Care Experience

Read through the following examples of direct patient care experience for PA school to gain insight into what's expected of you. 

  • Medical Assistant: Working as a medical assistant in a clinic or physician's office involves taking patient histories, measuring vital signs, preparing patients for exams, and assisting with minor procedures.
  • Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) or Paramedic: EMTs and paramedics respond to medical emergencies, providing immediate patient care and transportation. This role offers firsthand experience in handling critical situations.
  • Registered Nurse (RN) or Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN): Nurses are essential members of the healthcare team, responsible for patient assessment, medication administration, wound care, and more.
  • Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA): CNAs provide direct care to patients in various healthcare settings, including bathing, dressing, feeding, and assisting with mobility.
  • Surgical Technician: Surgical techs assist in operating rooms by preparing surgical instruments, maintaining a sterile field, and providing support during surgical procedures.
  • Phlebotomist: Phlebotomists specialize in drawing blood from patients, a fundamental skill in healthcare diagnostics.
  • Physical Therapy Assistant (PTA) or Occupational Therapy Assistant (OTA): PTAs and OTAs work with patients to carry out treatment plans developed by physical or occupational therapists.

Indirect Patient Care Experience

The following patient care experience for PA school is considered indirect but also valid experience.

  • Medical Scribe: These professionals document patient encounters and histories in real-time, aiding accurate record-keeping.
  • Medical Billing or Coding Specialist: Managing patient billing and insurance claims ensures the financial aspect of healthcare runs smoothly.
  • Radiologic Technologist: Their expertise is operating imaging equipment for diagnostic procedures like X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs.
  • Medical Laboratory Technician: They conduct diagnostic tests on patient samples, aiding in diagnosing and treating medical conditions.
  • Volunteer Work: Volunteering in healthcare settings, even in non-clinical roles, offers valuable experience. It may involve assisting patients, providing comfort, or supporting staff.
  • Shadowing: Observing PAs and healthcare professionals provides insights into PA roles, though it's not hands-on.
  • Research with Patient Interaction: Research roles involving patient interaction, contributing to patient outcomes and care improvement, count as patient care experience.
  • Military Healthcare Roles: Experience as a combat medic or medical corpsman often provides extensive hands-on patient care experience, making applicants strong candidates for PA programs.

When applying to PA programs, check each institution's requirements, especially patient care experience hours. Keep detailed records and get recommendation letters from supervisors or colleagues to boost your application's competitiveness.

What Doesn’t Count as Patient Care Experience for PA School?

Not all experiences are equal when it comes to qualifying for Physician Assistant (PA) school in the US. Admissions committees look for hands-on exposure to healthcare where you directly interact with patients. The following experiences, however, don't quite fit the bill.

  • Administrative Roles: Positions primarily focused on administrative tasks, such as receptionists, secretaries, or billing clerks, do not typically involve direct patient interaction and may not be considered patient care experience.
  • Non-Clinical Research: Doing laboratory or clinical research without direct patient contact, such as data analysis, lab work, or administrative support, is not typically viewed as patient care experience.
  • Retail Pharmacy: While working in a pharmacy is healthcare-related, roles such as a pharmacy technician or cashier do not involve direct patient care and may not meet the criteria.
  • Healthcare IT: Occupations related to healthcare information technology, like software development or systems management, generally do not provide direct patient care experience.
  • Healthcare Sales or Marketing: The healthcare industry's sales representatives and marketing professionals typically focus on promoting products or services and do not engage in patient care.
  • Fitness or Personal Training: While related to health and wellness, personal trainers and fitness instructors generally do not have direct patient care responsibilities in a clinical healthcare setting.
  • Hospice or Bereavement Counseling: While emotionally supportive and valuable, bereavement counseling or providing emotional support to patients' families is distinct from direct patient care.
  • Health Education: Teaching health-related courses or workshops may not involve hands-on patient care unless the role includes direct patient interactions, such as health counseling.
  • Non-Clinical Hospital Roles: Some positions in hospitals, such as housekeeping, food services, or maintenance, may be important for hospital operations but do not provide direct patient care.
  • Non-Medical Volunteer Work: Volunteering in non-medical roles, such as event planning, fundraising, or community outreach, may not count as patient care experience unless it involves direct patient interaction.

Review the requirements of the PA programs you're applying to; each may have its own criteria for patient care experience. Emphasize roles with direct patient interaction, detailed record-keeping, and clear descriptions of your responsibilities to showcase the relevance of your experiences in healthcare.

Direct Patient Care Vs. Healthcare Experience

Direct patient care refers to hands-on interactions with patients. It involves actively participating in the assessment, treatment, and care of patients under the supervision of healthcare professionals.

Healthcare experience, on the other hand, is a broader term covering any exposure to healthcare settings but may not always involve direct hands-on patient care. 

Reporting Patient Care Experience in the CASPA Application Form

Completing the CASPA (Centralized Application Service for Physician Assistants) application is a crucial step when applying to PA programs. The "Experience" section is where you showcase your qualifications, making it essential to handle this section effectively. 

Understanding CASPA's Experience Section

Here's a simplified guide to help you navigate the process:

  • Add an Experience: Start by adding an experience in the CASPA Experience section. Categorize it based on various types, such as Patient Care Experience, Healthcare Experience, Volunteer, etc.
  • Provide Organization and Supervisor Details: Enter the organization's name, location, and your supervisor's information.
  • Specify Experience Dates: Share the start and end dates, indicate if it's a current experience, and describe its status (full-time, part-time, etc.).
  • Enter Experience Details: Mention your title and the type of recognition you received (compensated, academic credit, volunteer). Record the average weekly hours and the number of weeks. CASPA will calculate the total hours.
  • Description/Key Responsibilities: In this crucial part, you have a 600-character limit to describe your experience. Be detailed and specific. Discuss your role, key responsibilities, skills gained, and how this experience will benefit you as a future PA.
  • Authorization: Indicate whether PA programs can contact your organizations/supervisors, which adds credibility to your experiences.

Why Detailed Descriptions Matter

For experiences, especially those falling under the Patient Care category, providing ample details is vital. Admissions committees rely heavily on this information to evaluate your qualifications. Here's what you should include:

  • Title/Role: Clearly state your position and responsibilities.
  • Key Responsibilities: Describe in detail what you did in this role.
  • Skills Acquired: Highlight the skills you gained from this experience.
  • Benefits as a PA: If space allows, explain how this experience will make you a better PA.

Meticulous descriptions in the CASPA Experience section are essential. They provide admission committees with a clear understanding of your qualifications, especially for patient care roles, which are a crucial part of your application. So, take your time to craft detailed and informative descriptions to make your application stand out.

FAQs: PCE for PA School

To learn more about the specifics of patient care experience, keep reading. 

1. What Are Examples of PCE for PA School?

Examples of patient care experience include working as a medical scribe, medical assistant, EMT, paramedic, and registered nurse.

2. What Is the Best Patient Care Experience for PA School?

Direct patient care is the best patient care experience for PA school.

3. How Many Hours of Patient Care Experience Do I Need for PA School?

PA schools typically require 500 to 2,000 hours of patient care experience.

4. Is 1,000 Patient Care Hours Enough for PA School?

Yes, 1,000 hours can be sufficient for some PA programs but may vary based on individual school requirements.

Final Thoughts

Understanding patient care experience for PA school is vital for aspiring Physician Assistants. PCE should be your guiding light on the path to becoming a PA. Embrace it, learn from it, and harness it to make a significant impact in the field of healthcare.

While accumulating 1,000 hours may meet the requirements of some PA programs, it's essential to research and align your experience with your chosen schools' specific criteria. 

Remember that the quality and diversity of your patient interactions also matter. As you set out on your journey towards becoming a PA, thorough research and preparation are key to a successful application and a fulfilling career in healthcare.

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