A Guide to Pre-PA Shadowing and Patient Care Experience

By: Laura Gallagher

On January 12, 2021, the US News & World Report named PA as the best overall job. Due to the increasing awareness of PA scope of practice and popularity of the profession, as well as the increasing demand for high-level healthcare providers, the application process has become extremely competitive. Beyond submitting undergraduate coursework grades and a CV/resume, all applicants are expected to prepare a personal statement and answer supplemental essay questions. In addition, all applicants must provide documentation regarding all shadowing, volunteering, and hands-on patient care experience. Due to this multi-step process and specific prerequisites that may vary between programs, the process can appear very daunting to a first-time applicant.

Personally, I believe that the multi-step process of applying to PA school is extremely beneficial to the applicant. It means that your application is not based solely on statistics, and instead considers the individual as a whole, allowing you to present multiple aspects of yourself. For example, an applicant who may not have the most stellar GPA has the opportunity to explain why that may be the case, as well as highlight their strengths in other areas. While a high GPA and GRE score are important factors of your application, they are just a portion of the whole picture. A student who exhibits a strong work ethic and passion within the medical field through patient care experience and shadowing is just as valuable — if not more — than someone with a 4.0 GPA. So, do not let the numbers diminish your confidence.

Due to this fact, it is important to find patient care experiences that allow your passion for medicine to shine. There are a multitude of positions available to pre-PA students that can count as hands-on patient care hours. Examples of these positions include, but are not limited to: Patient Care Technician, Medical Assistant, EMT, Paramedic, XRAY/Ultrasound Technician, CNA, Scribe, Athletic Trainer, PT/OT Aid, as well as military work.

Prior to applying to PA school, many programs require a minimum of 500–2000 hours of hands-on patient care experience. Personally, I chose to work as a Patient Care Technician (PCT) on a medical/surgical unit in the hospital. Similar to a CNA, I took a short course in order to become certified, which consisted of 160 hours of training on how to effectively perform vital signs, CPR and AED, EKG, bladder scans, and venipuncture. In addition, I learned how to safely ambulate patients and aid in all activities of daily living. While not every hospital or medical facility will require a certification, it is certainly helpful in getting hired and will allow you to be considered for a variety of positions.

Personally, I loved working on a medical surgical unit because of the exposure to such a wide scope of medical conditions. The patients I would care for would range from those with mild and acute illnesses in need of little assistance to patients suffering from multiple complex underlying conditions that are bed-bound and in need of complete care. While one patient may be suffering from acute diabetic ketoacidosis and associated sacral wounds, the next room may have a patient with a pericardial effusion that has progressed to cardiac tamponade and is in need of an emergent pericardiocentesis. The ability to decipher the patients in need or urgent medical treatment and those who can wait is an extremely critical aspect of the position that becomes an ingrained practice while working as a PCA. I believe that this exposure was extraordinarily helpful in expanding my knowledge of health conditions and diseases, and I would often reflect back upon these experiences when learning about a new condition throughout my education. Beyond this exposure, this experience also taught me how to effectively manage my time, work with a healthcare team, prioritize high-risk patients while still performing all scheduled tasks on time, and ensure that all patients are treated with the care, kindness, and respect they deserve.

In speaking to my classmates, it appears that many chose to work as a scribe prior to matriculating into PA school. According to peers within my cohort, being a scribe is a great way to learn about a wide variety of disease processes, complex and congenital conditions, and chronic illnesses. By writing all of the notes for the doctor, you are not only interacting and developing a relationship with the physician and patient, but you also learn how to properly record a patient’s history and develop a treatment plan. Through this position, the common patient presentations may start to become very familiar to you, and may help you to quickly recognize and develop differential diagnoses while practicing in the future. Through the repetition found within PCA/CNA and scribe positions, you begin to gain familiarity with pharmacological treatments for specific disease processes as well as the classic signs and symptoms associated with the disease, both of which are extremely helpful when you begin to learn about the conditions in detail within your PA education.

Another important factor in applying to PA school is shadowing experience. Personally, I shadowed a variety of healthcare professionals prior to deciding which career path was most suitable for me. While I had known I wanted to work in healthcare, my mind was not solidified until after I had shadowed a PA, MD, and PT. By shadowing professionals within various aspects of healthcare and medicine, I was able to appreciate the pros and cons of all roles, and find the career that matched my individual goals. After shadowing a PA and seeing PAs practice within the hospital, my mind was set.

While the process of applying to PA school can be quite daunting, it can also be viewed as an incredible opportunity to learn and grow as an individual and medical provider. While I admit that it is a lengthy process, I believe that it is part of an intentional process implemented by the PA admission’s committees to identify determination and resolve.  Applying to PA school requires a great deal of time, attention, and planning in order to acquire the clinical experience, shadowing hours, and prerequisites needed to meet PA program requirements. They want to know that you have put in the work and have adequately prepared yourself to succeed in a fast paced, academically rigorous, and high-stress, hands-on clinical environment. Through shadowing, the admission’s committees want to ensure that you know exactly what you’re applying for, and that you are determined and passionate about reaching this goal. It takes hard work, dedication, and enthusiasm in the field to get admitted into your desired PA program. This will come naturally when you’re doing something you genuinely enjoy.

Overall, I’d suggest gaining as much hands-on patient care experience and shadowing hours as possible. By shadowing various healthcare professionals and PAs within multiple specialties, you will gain valuable insight on daily practices within a variety of specialties. By shadowing PAs in diverse fields, you become aware of all of the opportunities available to PAs, as well as begin to determine where you can picture yourself working in the future. I would also recommend beginning to gain patient care experience as early as possible. While it may seem trivial to gain just a few hundred hours over a summer or throughout the school year, all of these hours will add up and greatly enhance your application when you do begin to apply. Remember to choose a position that you are passionate about, not necessarily what you think will look best to an admissions committee. If you are excited about something, go after it in every way you can. Your enthusiasm and determination will shine through and may be the reason you get accepted over another applicant.

Overall, be true to yourself and your goals. As much as you are trying to impress an admissions committee on paper and on interview day, they are also trying to impress you. Stand tall with confidence that you can achieve it all, because you absolutely can and will accomplish anything you set your mind to.


Laura is a second-year Physician Assistant student at Monmouth University. Due to her experience as a patient, she has become a passionate advocate for those suffering from chronic pain, TBI, and disabilities. Follow her on Instagram and check out her blog @patient_to_provider.

U.S. News & World Report. (n.d.). U.S. News & World Report Unveils the 2021 Best Jobs. U.S. News & World Report. https://www.usnews.com/info/blogs/press-room/articles/2021-01-12/us-news-unveils-the-2021-best-jobs.

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