quick health care experience

Dear Paul,

I am currently completing my junior year of undergrad as a Biology major and I’m psyched about becoming a Physician Assistant.  The trouble is, after looking at the requirements, it seems that every school wants to see something like 1000 hours of health care experience.  Some schools even want 3000 hours!  You see, I have none.  What is the quickest way to get 1000 hours?  I want to have things ready so I can start PA school in the fall after I graduate.  Any advice?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             –Rebecca

Dear Rebecca:

First, let me say that I’m psyched that you’re psyched about it – your enthusiasm will take you far.  Some variation of your question has been asked of me many times – enough times that it’s the topic of today’s post.  The answer to “How do I get health care experience for PA school quickly?” is very important to PA school applicant success.

To answer your question, we need a quick review of where the physician assistant profession came from…

According to The Physician Assistant History Society, the first PAs were former Navy corpsmen (and later, Army medics) who had treated soldiers during the Vietnam War.  They had extensive combat medicine experience and were skilled at field procedures and field medicine, but had never been to medical school.  In fact, most had not been to college.  Amidst a shortage of primary care physicians, it was a bold, new and pretty radical attempt to find a way to allow these very experienced professionals to practice medicine. And probably the biggest reason that it worked was that the American Medical Association members new that these guys (and later, gals) were experienced in medicine.

Fast forward to today.  Though it’s hard to believe, none of the first PAs would even make it into PA school if they were applying today.  At least some college is now a minimum requirement, and in most cases four years is the rule.  They would, of course rock the health experience requirement.  But today things have shifted a little more toward academics.  You don’t need to be a battle hardened medic, but it helps.

So how do you accrue 1000 hours of HCE quickly?  Well, if I’ve set the stage properly, you may already have figured it out.  The answer is:

You don’t.

(at least, if you want to be sure to be accepted when you apply).

The health experience requirement is what separates people who are ready for PA training from those who aren’t.  Most people don’t realize it, but it’s actually very uncommon for applicants to be admitted to PA school straight out of undergrad (there were no just-graduated students in my PA school class of 56).  PA school is short – 30 months on average, and there’s just too much to learn in that time to let anyone in who hasn’t seen their fair share of medicine.

But don’t feel bad for asking; it’s what everyone wonders when they discover this amazing field.  How can I jump through all the hoops and get started quickly?  But I invite you to ask yourself a more important question:

How can I make more sure that I will gain acceptance to a physician assistant program when I apply?  

It turns out that this question can actually accelerate your chances more than any other because it will help you get in the first time you apply and not the second, third, or thirteenth time.  Asking how to make your application one of quality — one that can’t be ignored among a pile of those that can — can save you time in the end.

The takeaway?

  1. The goal is to gain acceptance to a PA program, not to get to minimum qualifications that will allow you to apply.
  2. The faster/sooner you try to get in to PA school, the less sure that you can be that your next application will actually get you in.
  3. 1000 hours of good health care experience acquired over a reasonable period of time is far more impressive than 1000 hours of mediocre health care experience acquired quickly.
  4. Patients want to be treated by providers who didn’t “cut corners.”
  5. Working 40 hours per week in a health care job for one year is 2000 hours.  Even if only 1/2 of that time is with patients, that means you can do 1000 hours in 1 year.

In short, use your enthusiasm — and yes, even your impatience — to motivate yourself to use the time needed to become a strong PA school applicant, not just someone who is applying.