Patient care experience can be a prickly topic because the term is often used in different ways. There’s not always a clear definition from one school to the next, and this leads to confusion. What is clear is that it’s important that PA school candidates have patient care experience (PCE) and in order to be competitive, the more PCE, the better.
There’s also just “healthcare experience” and sometimes “direct patient care” gets thrown in there for fun. Let’s see what these terms mean.
What is PCE?
According to the almighty CASPA (Central Application Service for Physician Assistants), here’s the definition of PCE:
Experiences in which you are directly responsible for a patient’s care.
This is also sometimes called Direct Patient Care (DPC) at different programs. Even CASPA uses this term almost interchangeably with PCE.
So we’ve got PCE and DPC. Sounds simple enough, right? You’d think so but read on.
So what’s Healthcare Experience?
The definition of PCE would be easy enough if there wasn’t an overlap with another category: healthcare experience.
Again, according to CASPA, here’s the definition of healthcare experience:
Both paid and unpaid work in a health or health-related field where you are not directly responsible for a patient’s care, but may still have patient interaction.
Let’s do a little compare and contrast for argument’s sake.
Bring in the contestants
Think of two positions who might have exposure to patients in some way.
Let’s take a patient transport position for one example.
A patient transport position has a lot of exposure to many different patients, and yes, you’d be responsible for that person’s care in getting them where they need to go in a hospital; however, apart from being around a medical setting, you would not have responsibility for that person’s healthcare. Care yes, since we’d want the patient to arrive safely at their destination. Healthcare, no.
Contrast that position with a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA). As a CNA, many times your responsibilities are directly involved with handling the patient’s healthcare needs. The All Nursing Schools website describes some of the responsibilities of a CNA:
- Bathe and dress patients
- Serve meals and help patients eat
- Take vital signs
- Turn or reposition patients who are bedridden
- Collect information about conditions and treatment plans from caregivers, nurses and doctors
- Examine patients for bruises, blood in urine or other injuries/wounds
- Clean and sanitize patient areas
As you can see, there’s some elements in this role that are very directly involved in the physical care of a patient. You must be careful about this position, though, because not all CNAs have the same responsibilities. If your role is more about handling paperwork or administering food, CASPA says this would fall in the health care experience category and not the patient care category. Do your research in advance and ask very specific questions about the job you’re taking.
What are schools looking for?
We did some research into a few different PA programs, just to see what’s out there.
Because we’re based in the Midwest (specifically in Minnesota (uff-da)), we chose to start with Augsburg College in Saint Paul.
Augsburg’s website has some recommendations for patient care. They say that highly competitive applicants to the Augsburg PA Program will have:
- Direct patient care experience. This is the best type of experience to obtain in order to strengthen an application. We recommend at least 2000 hours of paid, direct, hands-on clinical patient care to be competitive in this category.
- Additional science courses such as anatomy, genetics, immunology, other biology courses, and organic chemistry
- Demonstration of motivation for the PA profession by formally shadowing a PA or other health care provider.
- Demonstration of a commitment to, and involvement with, underserved communities
Augsburg is looking for people with a 3.0 minimum GPA overall and in science, and they have 33 students per cycle.
From there we widened our ring a little bit but stayed in the Midwest. Mayo Clinic is so renowned we wanted to see what their standards would say.
Things got a little hard to trace, because they have a quad-partnership with three other organizations / institutions. You’d go to University of Wisconsin – Lacrosse for your coursework, and then do your rotations through Mayo related clinics and hospitals. This program only has 19 seats each year.
They use the term “direct patient healthcare experience” which muddies the waters somewhat because it melds different terms. When you dig a little deeper, their website says that while the program “expects that applicants will have healthcare experience, in particular experience involving direct patient contact” which clarifies the phrase. They say historically their applicants have years worth of experience, and they call out nursing assistant, phlebotomist, and EMT positions as jobs that do not require years of training in advance as a way of gaining this healthcare experience. [Information cited comes from the UW-Lacrosse website.]
In contrast, Red Rocks Community College in Colorado expects its applicants to have 2000 paid hours of healthcare-relevant experience. That’s a lot of hours but the term is pretty broad. They have only 32 seats each year.
On the other side of the country in Virginia, East Virginia Medical School technically doesn’t require it’s applicants to have any health care experience.
However, having that experience is going to make you a much more competitive candidate. Their website goes on to define which kinds of jobs or volunteer opportunities count towards health care experience. According to their website:
- Examples of acceptable types of direct patient care include:
- Registered nurse
- Certified nursing assistant
- Emergency medical technician
- Emergency room technician
- Certified medical assistant
- Examples of peri-clinical patient care experience include:
- Pharmacy technician
- Unit secretary
University of Florida offers a useful graph for what they consider Direct Patient Care vs. general health care experience. Their program states they also don’t require DPC but it is recommended. They suggest working one year or 2000 hours will give you that recommended baseline of experience.
You can see there’s some pretty high standards for what schools look for, and even those who officially say they don’t require it? Well, in order to be competitive with the potential 1000+ people who are applying for those approx. 30 seats, you’d be naive to think you’d have the upper hand because of your charm and wit in an interview. You’d be lucky to get that far.
Get all the experience you can
What’s the moral of this story? Get all the experience you can.
Most schools say they don’t require direct patient care experience but then they go on to explain what they’d accept as direct patient care experience.
We take this to mean that in order to really be competitive for almost any program, applicants need to have at least a year’s worth of work in order to stay in the race. Sometimes it takes getting another certification in order to get access to those jobs.
Whatever route you decide to take, remember that as you are gaining experience for PA school, you are also learning medicine. These are valuable skills that you will take with you to the next phase of your career!