Successful physician assistant school students have a strong background in health sciences and years of experience taking care of patients. Many students start with an undergraduate degree emphasizing the sciences—including biology, chemistry, microbiology, anatomy, physiology, and genetics—to prepare them for the heavy science course load in the physician assistant school program. Extra training in a patient care discipline such as nursing or paramedicine is also good preparation for the demands of physician assistant school. Physician assistant schools expect students to have a bachelor’s degree and a 3.0 or better GPA. Most PA students enter with a GPA above 3.5.
A good physician assistant school student will already have significant patient care experience. Hands-on direct care is given far more weight than less direct positions such as receptionist or medical assistant. The average enrolled student already has 4000 hours or two years of paid work experience meeting some of the medical needs and challenges of patients. Typical work backgrounds include nursing, emergency medical technology, and paramedicine. Other direct care positions such as respiratory technician or radiographic technician can also be good stepping stones to physician assistant school.
Pre-existing experience and solid science knowledge are critical to success in the demanding and consolidated physician assistant school program. But students must have a wealth of appropriate intellectual, social, and personality traits, as well. Students must have energy and perseverance to meet the challenges of the rigorous program and its long hours. Students need the ability to acquire knowledge quickly and to retain large amounts of information. Good physician assistant school students will also have strong investigative and analytical skills.
Physician assistant schools routinely describe technical standards that candidates should meet.
- First, physician assistant students must have satisfactory observation skills, including sensory ability. Students must be able to see, feel, and hear their patients in order to successfully learn the curriculum and provide proper medical care. Physician assistants must see their patients in order to properly assess them during a physical exam. Physician assistants must feel their patients to determine abnormalities to be treated. They must hear their patients to respond to complaints and concerns and even to evaluate a cough. Even sense of smell, though not critical to providing care, is a useful asset in detecting changes in physiologic function, such as ketosis.
- Second, physician assistant school students must be able to communicate effectively by speaking and writing clearly and receiving both verbal and nonverbal communication. Students will spend a great deal of time communicating their understanding of the curriculum, but physician assistants participate in critical communication with patients and their families. Effective communication is often the crux of successful health care. Physician assistants must listen attentively and compassionately to ascertain issues and concerns and build client rapport. PAs must then communicate health issues, treatments, and preventive actions so that patients, and families caring for patients, can maximize patient well-being and ensure clear direction for compliance. Effective written communication is important for client support, communicating with the health care team, communicating with the supervising physician, and maintaining proper legal records. To this end, good physician assistant school students will also have some computer awareness or expertise so that they are comfortable with utilizing modern health care technology and quality online resources.
- Third, students must have sufficient motor function, including strength, stamina, and coordination, to complete classroom and job functions. This can, at times, be a physically demanding profession. Students can expect to spend extended periods sitting in the classroom and extended periods on their feet during clinical rotations. Sufficient dexterity to properly utilize equipment is necessary.
- Fourth, PA students must have the intellectual capacity to comprehend, reason, problem-solve, and decide. These skills are critical to both classroom success and success treating patients.
- Finally, good physician assistant school students will have a behavioral profile and social skills necessary for professional relationships. For example, physician assistants should have empathy for patients and a true interest in patients’ health and well-being. A professional demeanor is essential to be respected and trusted. To be effective, physician assistants must make quick judgments within the guidelines established by medical practice and their supervising physicians.