PA School Tips: Getting Healthcare Experience

This is a big dilemma for some who are considering applying to PA school. Whether you’re still completing your undergraduate studies, fresh out of college, or changing careers this can be difficult. Some schools have a requirement of up to 2,000 hours of direct  “hands-on” clinical experience. That is one year working full-time in a healthcare position. When you are studying full time and working part time in a completely unrelated field, this can be daunting!

First I’ll share my experience. During undergrad I did a short course to become a certified nursing assistant (CNA). This was a weeklong course with both a didactic and a clinical exam at the end. The class was easy. The exam was easy. The hard part was finding a job!

My first job was something I found through a friend. It was helping a woman who was wheelchair bound due to a medical condition. I would show up to her house at 5:30 am on the weekends or before class and I would get her out of bed, help her use the bathroom, bathe her, and dress her. Sometimes I would go during the evening to help her into bed. This gave me a few hours per week.  In the meantime, I was applying to every local hospital in Gainesville, my college town.

I finally was invited to interview for a “sitter” position. I would literally sit with patients. The purpose of this position is to provide 1:1 supervision for high-risk patients—those who are high fall risk, those who are under suicide watch, or those who have dementia and may harm themselves unintentionally. But I also helped them with their activities of daily living including feeding, dressing, bathing, and feeding when needed. I tried to be proactive and I would check vital signs for the nurse. I would report any concerns I had to the nurse. I had to make the most of this position, which got my foot into the door of a large healthcare system. I think the best thing about this job was simply learning how hospitals function and learning to empathize with patients.

Then I graduated college and I simply wasn’t ready to apply for PA school. My GPA was mediocre. I hadn’t taken the GRE yet. And most importantly I needed more experience. After working and studying for the GRE that summer, I moved back to my hometown in my house with my parents. I applied for more advanced hospital jobs now that I had something to put on my resume. I worked on a special unit at the hospital for non-invasive cardiac procedures. I had more responsibility, more interaction with doctors and PAs, and more hands-on duties including taking vital signs, performing EKGs, and assisting with procedures such as exercise stress tests, tilt table tests, and synchronized cardioversions. I worked on that unit for a year before I started PA school.

I have good friends who were ER scribes, and from what I have heard, the experience is invaluable.  Scribes document provider-patient encounters in real time. My friends who were scribes learned so much!  Unfortunately, this is not considered “hands on” patient care experience and some programs may not accept this. Its important to research the requirements for each individual program you are interested in. There are training programs available, but many hospitals will train you on the job.  

There are phlebotomy certification courses, which is something else to consider. There are medical assistant programs, which are typically more office based jobs vs. hospital jobs, and some offices are willing to train without a certificate. There's EMT courses. Volunteering can get you some hours. Medical mission trips definitely count. Creativity adds bonus points!

I must emphasize the importance of having quality clinical experience. PA school is accelerated, and it's important that PAs have a foundation to build experience on. I don’t recommend getting the most hours possible in the shortest amount of time. Taking off a year (or more!) after you graduate to work can be very beneficial. If you are changing careers, I think a good first step is to immerse yourself in the medical field prior to applying, and the above recommendations still apply!  The jobs won’t always be glamorous, and sometimes you have to humble yourself and take advantage of prospects that get your foot in the door. Always be persistent, and don’t give up when looking for that first opportunity. Don’t forget to build relationships with coworkers for letters of recommendation, too!

Comment below any questions or your own personal experience!