How to Choose the Best Role for Patient Care Experience

When considering potential patient care experience roles in preparing for PA school, future PAs might ask questions like "What patient care experience is best?" or "What patient care roles do PA schools like the most?"

Many prospective PA students get stuck in these questions, developing a "paralysis of the analysis." Instead of finding a good fit and moving forward, they might waste precious weeks or months deliberating over which is the "best" role when they could be spending that same time gaining valuable patient care experience.

But, even with loads of time spent pondering, you won't find a clear cut answer because no single role is best for future PAs.

Roles, even with the same job title, can vary widely between employers or by the type of facility within which you work. And the hundreds of PA programs out there do not uniformly prefer one pre-PA position over another.

However, there are two aspects of a role that are most important to consider when choosing a patient care experience position: the ability to gain hours and the level of responsibility.

First-tier considerations

The ability to gain experience hours may seem obvious, but it's not uncommon for a future PA to dive headlong into a certification course, come out fully certified (e.g., as an EMT or CNA), and then struggle to find work or even volunteer opportunities with their certification.

Quantity isn't everything when it comes to patient care experience, but from a PA program's standpoint, a more significant number of hours on your application means more opportunities for you to grow your skills in managing patients and gain a more comprehensive understanding of the larger medical system.

So the ability to gain experience in any role you select should be a primary guideline for choosing a position. And starting your search in this way is fully laid out in this prior article.

Secondly, your level of responsibility both in the role and in patient care are essential to your job choice. Having the responsibility to care for patients directly is what separates patient care experience (PCE) from healthcare experience (HCE). HCE can be quite valuable, but PCE outranks HCE on your application.

The more responsibility you bear in caring for patients, the more opportunities you'll have to problem solve and to deal with difficult situations. PA schools are in tune with this aspect of pre-PA positions and value roles that allow you a greater hand in patient care.

Finding the Best PCE Role for PA School lBe a Physician Assistant

More responsibility will lead to deeper experiences, which will trickle down to higher quality essays and interview performances.

But the title of a position doesn't always equate to a certain level of responsibility. Working as an MA at one practice may give you a higher level of patient engagement than working as an EMT elsewhere, and vice versa.

Responsibility is not dependent on a title, and you'll have the chance to describe your level of engagement within the "experience details" section of your PA school application.

So, the amount of experience and level of responsibility are paramount in a patient care role and should exceed other considerations that go into a job choice. Always come back to these two if you feel like you're getting lost in a decision.

Diving deeper: second-tier considerations

After ensuring these first two principal aspects are part of your PCE role decision, the next place where you might get stuck is when deciding between two (or more) positions that seem very similar.

At first glance, two positions may seem comparable and may even share the same job title, which may make it difficult to make a clear cut decision. But three considerations will help you to dig a little deeper to make the best choice in a role when you've got options.

These include how the position gives you opportunities for case variety, connection to providers, and growth within a role.

1. Variety encountered

Every patient care position has a practice setting and, therefore, a fairly predictable patient acuity level. In an outpatient office, you can expect to care for relatively stable patients, while you're more likely to encounter patients with more acute illnesses or crises in a hospital or an urgent or emergent setting.

A role may allow you to see new patients, established patients, or both. You might be involved in helping patients with a wide range of issues, like in primary care practice, or a narrow set of complaints, like when working with an ophthalmologist specializing in retinal issues.

Looking for a role that could provide some variety doesn't mean that a role in primary care or emergency medicine is always preferred.

While a general practice (like primary care, internal medicine, emergency medicine, or pediatrics) may give you more variety than a discipline that is more focused, there are plenty of specialties that give you the opportunity for diversity among the types of cases and patients you might encounter.

For instance, working in gastroenterology may give you exposure to patients with patients with esophageal, stomach, liver, pancreas, small bowel, and colon issues as well as the plethora of autoimmune disease that impact the gut.

The same goes for a specialty like dermatology; a practice focused on skin issues can appear to be a narrow specialty, but even though the focus is on the skin, there are all kinds of illnesses, conditions, and treatment complications that affect the skin.

So on top of seeing patients with issues that arise from the skin, you'd also see and learn about conditions and diseases that have secondary impacts on the skin.

Additionally, dermatology has a lot of procedures, which may give you opportunities to observe or assist in them, adding variety to the typical outpatient visits you might encounter in other kinds of practices and to your overall experience.

When considering the diversity you might encounter in a patient care job, it's helpful to go beyond the specialty and think through what a full day or week may look like in that position.

No single role will allow you to see every type of patient in all possible care settings, but some will provide more variety than others. The right kinds of variety will help you to gain a broader range of experience while building a better understanding of both the patient care and operational aspects of medicine.

When completing your CASPA application, you'll have the chance to outline the variety of practice settings and patient cases that you've encountered in a patient care role, which will help communicate to PA programs that you've built a solid foundation that has readied you to study medicine.

Before you get mired in which specialty might be best for you, remember that the possible variety you may encounter in a patient care role is a second-tier decision-making consideration.

If working as an ophthalmology tech would give you loads more responsibility than an alternative position, that's a top-tier consideration that should trump the potential for practice diversity.

2. Potential for provider connection

The second deeper aspect to take into consideration when comparing roles similar in their expected quantities of experience and levels of responsibility is the opportunity for you to connect with providers.

When it comes to access to PAs, NPs, and physicians, not all roles are created equally. While a position may give the opportunity to care for patients directly, it might not put you in regular direct contact with the members of the medical team responsible for making decisions.

Just as with finding the position that would allow for the most responsibility in your pre-PA work, connection to providers is not dependent on your job title.

A CNA position at one facility may have you working closely with PAs, while a similar job somewhere else may mean you hardly ever lay eyes on a provider.

As an EMT, you could work on an ambulance and meet providers upon patient dropoff, or you could work in the ER, side-by-side with PAs, for the majority of your shifts.

Let's be clear: a lack of access to providers is not a dealbreaker when deciding on a role. It's a secondary consideration, and you can gain valuable patient care and healthcare experience without it.

But, if you're comparing potential options side by side, a role that would have you working closely with PAs or other providers has advantages.

First, you'll be able to learn more about how a provider interacts with patients, works to solve problems, and functions as part of a larger team.

If you've struggled with finding a PA to shadow, working with one would give you easy access to make this request, which you could do outside of your official work hours. They might even connect you with their colleagues for additional shadowing opportunities.

When it comes time to apply to PA school, having worked closely with a provider can amplify the value of your patient care experience. Having a provider in your corner who can speak to your hard work and interest in pursuing medicine can also translate into a solid letter of recommendation.

If you're weighing more than one option for obtaining direct patient care, think beyond what duties you might have day-to-day and look at who else might be there. The chance to work closely with PAs can be a considerable advantage, and if not PAs, at least other providers.

Interacting with individuals in these roles can give you insight into what it's like to be a provider and furnish you with more connections down the road.

3. Opportunities for growth

The final secondary factor to consider in your choice of PCE position is the opportunity for growth, which can present itself in several forms.

Most future PA students gain their direct patient care experience through an entry-level position in medicine, like a medical assistant, EMT, patient care tech, or CNA.

When you start as a new employee, those with experience in the role are likely to be the ones responsible for training you.

Because these entry-level roles require little or no prior experience, it's often not long before others are hired in similar positions during your employment, which may mean that down the line, you have the opportunity to train the newbies.

The ability to train and teach others is a valuable skill and one that can be highlighted on your application.

Other areas for growth may include the chance to participate in research, develop process improvement projects for your department or unit, or simply having access to attend grand rounds at a teaching hospital.

If you're comparing similar positions head to head, ask yourself the important "and": "I'll be responsible for direct patient care and..."

What comes after the "and" can help you see the opportunities for growth that a role might grant you. Building skills beyond patient care can help to add depth and richness to your application and your future interview.

When analyzing your options for gaining direct patient care experience, your first layer of assessment should be to look at the available quantity of hours and level of responsibility involved in a role.

If these major aspects seem comparable between two jobs that are appealing to you, going a bit deeper in your analysis will help you select the best role for you.

Recognizing the variety of cases, settings, and patients, the potential for provider connections, and the opportunities for growth that any role offers will lead you to the choice likely to be the most valuable one for you.