How to Get Clinical Experience for PA School (without a certification)


After a barrage of phone calls from panicked students, CASPA recently reversed their decision to recategorize work as a CNA and MA as health care experience (HCE).


Just a few weeks prior, they had abruptly shifted CNA work (the most common direct patient care position for future PA students) from counting as patient care experience (PCE) to HCE with the start of the 2017-2018 application cycle.


Why does it matter if an experience is PCE or HCE? PCE is more highly regarded by PA programs than HCE because it involves hands-on, direct patient care. Many PA programs have a minimum number of required PCE hours for applicants and even those that don't have a minimum typically value PCE more than HCE hours.


Plus, CNA work clearly meets the CASPA definition for PCE - "experiences in which you are directly responsible for a patient’s care," rather than HCE - "both paid and unpaid work in the health or a health-related field where you are not directly responsible for a patient’s care but may still have patient interaction."


While some CNA and MA roles are more clerical and would legitimately be categorized as HCE, the majority meet the criteria for PCE.


Thankfully, CASPA's change of heart means that a few options that closely parallel a CNA or MA are also back on the table.


In this post, we'll explore a few roles that do not require certification but do involve direct patient care and, therefore, qualify as PCE for your PA school application.



Patient care technician (or patient care coordinator, clinical coordinator, patient care assistant/associate)

There are a growing number of positions available at hospitals and clinics that mimic the duties of a CNA or MA without the need for certification. These direct patient jobs typically involved doing patient assessments, taking vitals, and drawing blood under the direction of a nurse.


A patient care tech role is perfect for those still in college or looking for a part-time PCE position that can fit with the rest of their schedule.


You may need to do some digging when looking for these positions because they have many different titles - patient care technician (or tech), clinical coordinator, patient care assistant or associate just to name a few.


Carefully read the job descriptions for these positions to ensure they are not primarily clerical, which would count as HCE rather than PCE.


Typical qualifications: High school diploma & CPR certification.



Clinical research coordinator

A clinical research position is a great option if you are planning a gap year or two after college or if you are already a college graduate.


Clinical Experience without Certificate for PA School lBe a Physician Assistant

A clinical research coordinator helps to enroll and monitor patients on clinical trials and has direct responsibility for a patient's care. Patient care duties usually include drawing blood, monitoring lab results, seeing patients during office visits, and assessing symptoms and side effects throughout the course of a patient's treatment.


Research positions are usually full-time, and fewer of these spots are available compared to other types of PCE. You will find them at large hospitals or academic centers involved in research. This role is usually titled "clinical research coordinator" or "clinical studies coordinator."


The entry-level salary (around 40-50K) is much higher than the average pay for PCE positions, better allowing you to build a stable financial footing for PA school.


Working as a clinical research coordinator is an excellent way to get research experience before PA school and interact with many different types of health care providers. While research experience is not necessary, it is something that many other applicants will not have.


A "data coordinator" is a different kind of position and has little, if any, patient interaction. Again, be sure to read the job description carefully. During an interview, confirm the exact duties you would be performing so that you are clear it is a PCE role.


Typical qualifications: Bachelor's degree in biology, science or health field.



Clinic volunteer

Many hospitals and community-based clinics in or near college towns have student (or even pre-health student) volunteer programs. These structured programs typically involve regular weekly shifts and have required hours per month or semester.


Because the duties of a volunteer can vary widely, check into individual programs to see if they have a role available that would qualify as PCE.


If you are out of college, you can check with the volunteer services program of your local hospital to see what PCE opportunites may exist for adult volunteers.


Volunteer programs can also provide excellent opportunities for being matched with a mentor or finding a PA to shadow.


Typical qualifications: College student for student programs, background check.



Medical mission volunteer

Volunteering with a medical mission trip will cost you more than other types of volunteering, but it can be a good way to get a bunch of PCE hours within a short period. Over a two-week mission trip, racking up 150-200 hours would not be unusual (though some programs may cap your hours at a weekly max, so be sure you know your target programs).


Through this experience, you can learn and be responsible for taking vitals, performing basic lab tests, administering basic wound care, and educating patients.


Most undergraduates who go on medical mission trips find that their interaction with patients and first experiences in teaching others to be very rewarding. It's also a good introduction to global health issues and may serve as some inspiration for writing your personal statement.


You may more heavily consider medical mission trips if you plan on targeting PA programs with an underserved mission or if you are considering working in a medically underserved area following PA school.


Typical qualifications: Ability to spend the time and money required for the trip, completing some exotic-sounding vaccines before you go.


As far as CASPA is concerned, taking vital signs is not enough for an activity to count as PCE. You have to have some direct responsibility for the patient's care for any role to meet the definition of PCE.


When submitting a PA school application, the applicant is responsible for reporting experiences as PCE or HCE. You should be able to interpret your experience accordingly by the CASPA guidelines.


But, PCE can also be in the eye of the beholder. It is possible that a PA program will categorically regard certain kinds of experience as HCE, even if you think it was PCE.


If you are genuinely unsure whether a role is PCE or HCE, contact a few of your target PA programs to get their take. You want to use your time and effort wisely and not go head first down a path that may make you less competitive. (Yet another great reason to have target PA programs!)


Next week, we'll explore PCE roles that require the least amount of time for certification. Until then, drop in the Be a PA private FB group with your idea for PCE that does not require certification.