Healthcare Experience for PA School


Healthcare experience (HCE) has become one of the biggest factors that PA schools look at, and some of the requirements are pretty high. For most programs, you're going to need "direct patient-care experience."  This usually does not include shadowing or volunteering, although some require these types of hours as well. It is not uncommon for programs to want at least 1,000 HCE hours.  About 1 year of full-time work will be about 2,000 hours just as a reference.

Before you decide to spend some money and time on any kind of training to get HCE, check with the programs you are interested in to be sure it will count.  There will occasionally be occlusions of certain jobs that you think would possibly count, or the opposite can be true as well.  The program I attended (Georgia Regents) actually accepted hospice volunteering hours as direct patient care, which was nice because it was free.

To become more competitive, I recommend doing some kind of formal training, unless you are able to find a position where they are willing to train you on the job. Occasionally, you can be trained as a medical assistant, scribe, or patient care assistant, but more often than not, you will have a better chance at getting a job if you are certified.  My high school offered an awesome program where you could become a CNA (Certified Nurse Assistant), and unfortunately I did not take advantage of this.  If you are starting out early, good for you! And take advantages of any training you can get as soon as possible.

Being that I still needed some experience, I decided to enroll in a CNA program.  These typically will be either condensed over a few weeks during the day or at night or spread out to accommodate different schedules.   I attended the program every Saturday for 3 months during my sophomore year of college, and did the clinical week during my Spring Break.  Not my favorite Spring Break, but totally worth it in the long run. It was a few hundred dollars unfortunately, but I made it back working full-time during the next summer.  I got a job as a CNA in a rehabilitation hospital and it was a great experience.

Looking back on that experience, it's made me question why PA programs would want you to have any healthcare experience, let alone thousands of hours.  My husband is a 4th year medical student and he didn't have to do anything like that at all!  I think by doing tasks that are sometimes not the most fun, it reinforces the teamwork aspect of being a physician assistant.  Once you are practicing, you will have such a greater appreciation and respect for the CNAs, medical assistants, EMTs and nurses because you have been in that position yourself and you realize how important they are.  I remember working as a CNA and the physician coming to find me to ask if I had noticed any changes in a certain patient because I spent so much more time with the patients than the actual providers.  And that's ok because they have a lot of people to take care of, but it really opened my eyes to just how much better healthcare can be if you approach it as a team effort.

Here are some of the fields that are typically accepted by most programs:

  • EMT or paramedic
  • Registered nurse (RN), BSN, LPN
  • CNA (sometimes called a patient care assistant)
  • Medical assistant
  • Respiratory therapist
  • Dietician
  • Phlebotomist
  • International healthcare based mission trips

Here is a great blog post with examples of what actual students did for healthcare experience before starting PA school.  

What are you doing to get your healthcare experience and how many hours are you applying with?