The Physician Assistant Life

How to Find The Direct Patient Care Experience You Need to Become a Physician Assistant

How to Find the direct Patient Care Experience You Need to Become a Physician AssistantRead on: You may also be interested in my newest post Healthcare Experience Required for PA School: The Ultimate Guide

I could probably summarize this entire blog post in one sentence:


How many healthcare experience hours do you need to make yourself a competitive PA school candidate?

Although this is a topic of some debate, the consensus from both past and present data suggests 2-years, or 2,000 hours of direct hands-on patient care experience, is a good number to aim for.

I received this email yesterday from a pa school applicant Deeba. It is a good question, and I am sure there are many answers to this, but I thought I would share my experience with you here on the blog.

Subject Line of Email: Finding Direct Patient Care Requirements

I am currently a sophomore in college and want to go to PA school. I see that the  requirement for most schools is about 1,000 hours of direct patient care.

How can I get direct patient care?

Everything I see requires some kind of certificate which means more classes and money. Can you list me some options of direct patient care jobs that I can do that don’t require a certificate?

I keep stressing that I won't find any place/job to get direct patient care experience if I am not  certified nurse? Is this true, please let me know my options!

Thank you,


Here is my Answer:

Hi Deeba,

You have many, many options.

It can be as simple as volunteering in your local community hospital, in a retirement center, working overseas, at a blood center, a children's center, The Special Olympics or a special needs summer camps etc. etc. Most hospitals have a need for volunteers and have a department dedicated to this. This is a very good place to start.

That’s exactly what I did, when I started in patient transport. I simply walked through the front door of the University Hospital, smiled very big and asked the front desk staff where I could find information about volunteer opportunities.  They gave me a vest, a badge and I was making my first patient transport the following day.

Later that year, I took a short walk to the student clinic and once again threw a big smile on my face and asked if there were positions for students interested in healthcare.  They introduced me to "Molly", a wonderful senior pre-med student working in the clinic as an assistant phlebotomist.  She let me shadow her for the day.  She introduced me to staff all over the hospital. I can't tell you how much I respected her and wanted to be like her.

It was because of Molly that I landed my first paid position in the clinic as a medical records clerk making $4.25 an hour.  As a medical records clerk my job was not simply filing records (it was the days pre-digital) so I got to explore the various specialty clinics and collect and distribute medical records to all the providers. I met just about everyone in the clinic, including my first physician assistant.

The following year Molly graduated and passed her phlebotomy position on to me.  They trained me to do work in the laboratory and perform blood draws (without a certificate).  Upon graduation they provided me with an official certification, and I went on to work for the University Hospital and the Puget Sound Blood Center as a lead technician.

I continued to volunteer wherever I could:

  • During my senior year I spent the summer working at a special needs youth summer camp.
  • After graduation, and after I returned home from work, I took evening classes for 3 months to get my EMT certification.
  • I volunteered in a homeless shelter.
  • I was applying for a 3 month internship to work in Chicago Catholic Youth Ministries when I was accepted into PA school.

I am not trying to give myself a pat on the back. What I am trying to do is to show you that to make it anywhere in life, you have to get out and just do it.

Opportunities rarely come knocking at your door, but there are opportunities everywhere. If you are short on opportunities in your area then go to where the opportunities are. I am on the board of our Physician Assistants For Global Health organization and there are 1-2 week, up to 1-2 year volunteer opportunities working overseas and you don't need any patient care experience to get started.

But Stephen, I have kids, family to support, school and a part time job!

Trust me, as a father of two with an extremely busy schedule I understand.  If you ever wonder why I took a week to get back to you on a comment then now you know why.

If you have kids, family a part time job, school a family member to care for etc. etc. it simply means you have to dig a bit deeper and get a little more creative.  It may mean taking classes at night to get that certification you may need, cutting back on hours at work, teaming up with your partner or friends to get creative with child care, you may have to take a huge leap of faith and quit your current job completely.

Nobody said it was going to be easy. You just never give up, no matter how hard the challenges are, observe this world with a healthy dose of scepticism and don't just follow the herd like somebody else might do.

Once you are on target, you  will find this isn’t work at all, it is joy to help other people. It will open your mind as well as your heart and you will become a better person along the way.

Start today:

  • Send out a request to your Facebook or Linkedin network
  • Search global health opportunities
  • Call your local health center
  • or homeless shelter
  • or children's hospital
  • or veterans association
  • or senior living center

You get the point.

Say you are willing to work for free… and do an awesome job, and you will also have the glowing letters of recommendation you need!

And, to top it off,  you will feel good about yourself, you will develop the skills you need to love and care for another human being. Which is really what matters the most to be successful in life and as a PA.

I hope this helps,


Here is what Andrew Rodican author of "The Ultimate Guide to Getting Into Physician Assistant School" has to say about this topic: 

(the following is an excerpt from his book)

PA school applicants come to the table with a variety of medical experience, especially if they’re strong applicants.

Unfortunately, some applicants have no medical experience at all, which certainly hurts their chances of getting accepted.

Most committee members will insist on some prior medical experience before they will consider the applicant as a serious candidate.

On average, four years of prior experience in one of the following areas is common:



  • Registered Nurse (RN)
  • Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN)
  • Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)

Allied Health

  • Physical Therapist
  • Occupational Therapist
  • X-ray Technician

Emergency Services

  • Emergency Medical Technician (EMT)
  • Paramedic
  • Emergency Room Technician


  • Phlebotomist
  • Athletic Trainer
  • Medical Researcher
  • Medical Volunteer


Applying to PA school is an extremely competitive process. The more points you score with the committee, the better.

Think about your own experience and how you might be able to improve upon it. If you have little or no medical experience, consider doing volunteer work at the local hospital or clinic. The more hands-on medical experience you have, the stronger you will be as a candidate.


As much as I love Andrew Rodican's book on the topic of getting into pa school I think he is using an all too common path. I helped a gentleman with his personal statement last year who prior to applying to PA school had many years of experience, not in the healthcare field mind you, but as a dance instructor.

The key is that he loved people, it was apparent in his essay and apparent in our communications back and forth.

Applicants I council tend to get caught up on trying to fill these "quotas" of what they think is necessary to succeed. Often we use the principles of a common denominator... i.e if I become a CNA I can make it as a PA.

The truth is, that I would much rather take the dance instructor, with the solid GPA, who shows he cares deeply about people and is willing to work his butt off.

What I am trying to say is don't sell yourself short and set the bar in a comfortable place. Look outside yourself  for experiences that will help you grow as a compassionate and caring human being. From here the sky's the limit.


Photo credit: Courtney Reese  from our trip to Haiti - 2012. You can watch my cheesy (yet hopefully inspiring) video montage of our medical mission Here.

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