What Are Clinical Rotations in PA School?

PA students discussing clinical rotations

For students studying to be physician assistants, clinical rotations in PA school are both a welcome break from the grind of didactics and an exciting, though challenging, opportunity for hands-on learning. 

The average PA program lasts approximately 27 months (though some programs are a few months shorter and others a few months longer). The first phase of education for students is the didactic phase — or the classroom phase — and the second phase is the clinical phase, when clinical rotations take place.

According to the American Academy of Physician Assistants (AAPA), during the didactic phase, students receive instruction regarding the basic medical sciences. This includes anatomy, physical diagnosis, pharmacology, physiology, medical ethics, behavioral sciences. At the end of the didactic phase, and before clinical rotations in PA school, PA students take “more than 75 hours in pharmacology, 175 hours in behavioral sciences, more than 400 hours in basic sciences, and nearly 580 hours of clinical medicine.”

Upon successful completion of the didactic phase of learning, students begin the clinical phase that consists of rotations in a variety of medical and surgical disciplines. There are different types of clinical rotations students will take, some are required and others are elective. 

The required clinical rotations include emergency medicine, family medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, internal medicine, general surgery, pediatrics, and psychiatry. The reason for these required clinical rotations is that PA education is generalist education — PAs can practice medicine in almost any specialty because of the broad nature of the didactic and clinical education they receive. This generalist training makes PAs in high demand and allows them to switch specialties relatively easily if they so choose during their careers.

In addition to the required rotations, the majority of PA programs have students take 1–5 elective rotations. Elective rotations are an exciting opportunity for students to gain valuable experience in an area of practice that they find particularly interesting and rewarding. Some examples of elective rotations are: Dermatology, Neurosurgery, Ambulatory Medicine, Cardiology, Plastic Surgery, Neonatology, Infectious Diseases, Oncology, Surgical Intensive Care Unit, Orthopedic Surgery, and many others. 

A PA clinical rotation’s length is typically 4-8 weeks but this can vary depending on the rotation and the PA program. By the time a student finishes clinical rotations in PA school and graduates, they will have completed 2,000 or more hours of supervised clinical practice in a variety of medical settings. At the end of each clinical rotation, students are required to take an end-of-rotation exam (commonly known among students as EORs) to demonstrate their competency in that particular rotation. 


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