Clinical Experience for a Physician's Assistant Programs

Almost all PA program require a significant amount of clinical experience before admission.  For many programs, this translates into a required minimum of 1 year (2000 hours) of direct, hands-on patient care.  This experience can be obtained through paid positions or volunteer work and can come in a wide variety of forms.  Direct health care experience can include positions such as medical assistant, emergency medical technician (EMT), paramedic, peace corps volunteer, lab assistant/phlebotomist, health care-related technician, RN, clinical research assistant, community health worker, certified nursing assistant (CNA), physical therapy aide, medical technologist, and scribe.  Typically the title of the position is not important; the key is to have actual patient contact with a wide range of patients.  Although shadowing a physician’s assistant is a wonderful way to learn about the profession, it is not considered clinical experience by most PA programs.  If you are considering a type of clinical experience not explicitly listed here, be sure to check with the programs you are interested in to see if they consider it to be patient care.

The question that most students ask is how to obtain these types of clinical experiences.  Many PA applicants complete their CNA or EMT certification or work as a medical assistant or phlebotomist.  Below are some tips on how to pursue these types of patient care.

Certified Nurse Aide (CNA)
A CNA is a person who assists the registered nurses as they perform their duties.  CNAs often work in assisted living facilities, nursing homes, or provide in-home care, but they are also employed by hospitals and clinics.  To become a CNA, you will need to take courses at the community college level to obtain your certification.  Aims Community College offers these courses: one is a four credit course entitled Nurse Aide Health Care Skills and the second course is a one credit course entitled Nurse Aide Clinical Experience.  Other local community colleges offer similar courses to obtain certification.  Many premed students who wish to obtain their CNA do so during the summer or during a regular semester if their schedules allow.  There are often open paid positions for CNAs at a number of nursing home and other facilities.  Although the job is not an easy one, it will provide you with direct interaction with patients and will give you a realistic view of one aspect of the health care field.  Becoming a CNA is a great way to determine if you truly enjoy working with patients and if health care is a good fit for you.

Emergency Medical Technician (EMT)
An EMT is someone who is trained to respond to emergency medical situations, typically outside of a health care facility.  There are different levels of training for EMTs, including EMT-Basic, EMT-Intermediate and EMT-Paramedic.  Each subsequent level requires more training and most premed students who go this route choose EMT-Basic certification.  This type of training is provided by local community college and Aims Community College offers EMT-Basic training.  The requirements for this certification are two courses: EMS 125 which is 9 credits and EMS 170 which is one credit. After completing these courses, students can then sit for the national exams to obtain certification.  The advantage of obtaining EMT training for the premed student is that he or she can then directly perform medical care on patients and will gain exposure to emergency medicine.  It is a great way to observe medical teams as they work and gain satisfaction from being able to help those in need.  However, the patient care is limited to emergency situations only, and this type of medicine is only one small aspect of the overall field, so shadowing or working in non-emergency situations would also be beneficial.

Medical Missions Trips
Many students take advantage of the opportunities to become involved in medical missions trips.  These are trips that are taken by medical professionals to areas of the world where access to medical care is severely limited.  Most trips require that students pay for their own transportation and fees associated with the trip.  These trips are a great way to combine travel and medical experience as well as gain exposure to a totally different culture.  Students with CNA or EMT training can often use their skills on these trips and even those with no certification can act in supportive roles.  While these trips are a great experience, it is not recommended that this be your only type of clinical experience.  Because you will primarily be practicing medicine in the US, it is important that you gain exposure to the US medical system as well.  Medical missions trips are usually considered a wonderful way to supplement your clinical experience.

This is the practice of drawing blood and you can take courses at the community college level to become a phlebotomist.  These positions will provide you with direct patient care, but in a limited setting and with brief exposure to each patient.  You are often exposed to only a small aspect of the health care field, so it is recommend that if you choose this type of clinical experience that you also volunteer or shadow in a wider range of specialties.

Medical Assistant
Medical assistants often work in clinics and family practices.  The medical assistant is often the one who takes the initial complaint, records height, weight and blood pressure and fills out preliminary paperwork.  There are training programs for medical assistants available at the community colleges.  Medical assisting will provide you with exposure to the family practice setting and will also allow direct interaction with patients.  However, most physicians are reluctant to hire a medical assistant who is also in college, and often want someone who can accept a full time position.