Choosing a PA School

Brittany Barnes2
“What really drew me to the program was the service-learning and that we’ll be working with other students in an inter-professional health and wellness center.”
-Brittany Barnes, Russellville, AR

How do you select a physician assistant program that is right for you? Each program is very different in its mission, goals, and emphasis. Each program will have a very different personality and your goal is to discover which program is exactly the right fit for you, your interests, and your goals as a future medical provider. Here is a list of some things for consideration when you are choosing a PA program:

1. Mission Statement/ Goals of the Program
The mission statement and goals of the PA Program indicate a lot about the program and what is important to the program and what will be emphasized by the program.

2. Degree Offered

% of programs offer a Master’s degree
% of programs offer a bachelor’s degree
% of programs offer an associate’s degree

All physician assistant program are required to convert the program degree to a master level degree by the year _________.

3. Length of Program

How long will you be in school? Programs will generally range from 24 months to 30 months in length depending on the didactic curriculum or dual degree offered.

4. Entrance requirements

What do you need to accomplish to get into school? Entrance requirements for PA programs will vary depending on the emphasis of the program.

5. Geographic Location

Where do you want to live? The state in which the PA Program is located may be important in your decision. Is it close to home? Do you want to live in a new area of the country while in school? Is the program located in a larger city, downtown, suburb, or smaller community?

6. Starting Date of Program

When does the PA program begin and end? The majority of program start in August. Other programs may begin in May/ June or in January. Depending on the length of the program and start date, when does the program end or graduate students?

7. Public versus Private Institution

Public institutions are generally state funded and not tuition funded as many private schools. Public institutions are generally more cost effective for in-state students and more costly for out-of-state students. Public institutions also tend to have higher fees associated with the institution.

8. Academic Medical Institutions

Some PA Programs in public or private educational institutions are at academic medical institutions. The university is considered a teaching institution and is affiliated with a medical school, other health profession programs, and research centers. Academic medical centers tend to attract high quality medical providers and researchers to the institution. The cost of attendance is generally higher than a program at a public school for in-state tuition but less than a private school.

9. Emphasis of Program

Does the program have an emphasis like primary care, rural medicine or surgical medicine? The majority of PA Programs have a primary care or general medicine focus except for a small number of programs that are surgical programs. Some programs may emphasize a rural medicine focus or in caring for patients from medically underserved areas.

10. Curriculum Design and Implementation

All PA Programs will design their curriculum differently depending on emphasis of the program, goals, and mission statement. All programs need to address specific accreditation standards to ensure quality of programs nationally. Some items an applicant may want to consider is:

  • Does the program have a systems-based or a course-based curriculum?
  • Do the courses correlate with other courses or are the courses taught independently from one another?
  • Are there any clinical experiences offered before the clinical phase of the program?
  • How is anatomy taught? Do they offer a gross anatomy course and is it a prosection or a dissection course? There are pros and cons to both. Or is the anatomy course taught with virtual software, anatomical models or plastinated cadavers?
  • How is evidence-based medicine incorporated into the curriculum?
  • How are the procedural labs taught and the types of procedures taught?
  • Is there a simulation center on campus?
  • How is communication with patients addressed?
  • Is there inter-professionally education within the college or university?
  • Where will the clinical rotations be located?
  • Is there any additional fees associated with clinical phase housing?
  • What are the opportunities for elective rotations?

11. Student to faculty ratio

How many full-time faculty members work at the PA Program in relation to how many students are enrolled? Class sizes that are small, allow the faculty more one-on-one time with the students in the classroom and laboratory setting.

12. Teaching Facilities

What are the teaching facilities like? What are the classrooms like that you will be spending a lot of time in? Are there laboratory facilities for physical examination? Is there a simulation center on campus or a clinical skills laboratory? Is there a gross anatomy laboratory? What other unique learning facilities are there for the PA students?

13. New versus an Established Program

When it comes to new versus established PA Programs, there are pros and cons to both. Established programs have a long history, an established track record, and published PANCE scores. These programs may also be less likely to change what has been working well in the classroom or program and may not incorporate newer educational strategies. This is not always the case, all programs are very individualized.

New programs are starting from scratch and may develop an innovative program during the design process. These programs tend to incorporate new methods more often and are creative in teaching methods because of the new development. These programs do not have a proven track record of success until several classes graduate. When evaluating a new program, look for the organizational abilities of the program, the reputation of the university, and experience of the faculty at developing new programs.

14. Clinical Rotations

Compare the different core or required rotations offered by PA Programs and the opportunity for elective rotations. Does it match what your interests are and future goals?

15. Faculty background

What are the faculty backgrounds? What type of clinical experience have they had as a practicing PA. What are their interests?

16. Diversity and Cultural Competency

What is the philosophy of the program about fostering diversity in the program? Is there an emphasis in cultural awareness and promoting cultural competency with the students?

17. Inter-professional Education (IPE)

What is the program doing to incorporate inter-professional education and team-based learning with students from other disciplines like other health professions, medicine, nursing, pharmacy, public health? IPE is not about placing students from different disciplines in the same course. IPE is about having the students work together to foster a better understanding of the team-based approach to caring for patients.

18. Service-Learning

Is the PA Program incorporating service-learning into the curriculum? Service-learning is more than community service, it is combining a community service outside of one’s discipline with learning objectives, reflections by the students, and input from the community. Service-learning teaches the students about community issues that are going to face their future patients.

UAMS PA Program
UAMS PA Program
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