Before I entered PA school, I took a couple of years off to gain experience working as a medical assistant. In those two years, I learned the ins-and-outs of family practice. 

Because of this, I’m often asked the same question: If I could do it over again, would I still take the time off? Or would I go straight into PA school?

Hands down, I would still take the time off. Here’s why.

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As a medical assistant, I gained unbelievable amounts of hands on patient experience. Many people dream of going into the medical field, but they don’t understand the harsh realities of medicine.

It is gross. People are gross. Patients are sweaty, sticky, and often smelly, and it’s your job to touch them. Unfortunately, some people don’t realize this until they are several semesters into grad school and knee-deep in student loans.

Getting close to strangers and having to invade their personal space is not inherently part of human nature, and it takes a lot of practice before it becomes comfortable.

As a medical assistant, I dealt with many sticky, smelly people. It was my job to remove their ear wax, shave their chest hair, and test their urine, amongst many other undesirable tasks. It wasn’t pretty, but it’s a standard part of medicine.  

Through these experiences, I learned that I not only had the stomach for gruesome tasks, but I actually found them fascinating. In addition to dealing with the gory side, I also gained precious experience doing thousands of blood draws, assisting in procedures, and developing bed side manner, all skills that I still use today.

I was able to work with doctors with years of experience and an unbelievable wealth of knowledge combining old and new medicine, who were always willing to teach me their ways. If you are interested in going into medicine, I highly recommend hands-on experience first, because dealing with the less-than-glamorous side of medicine will be a tell-tale sign of whether or not medicine is the right field for you.

Another benefit of medical assisting was that I was able to learn the behind the scenes aspects of medicine. I learned how to navigate the world of medical supplies and how to best deal with pharmaceutical reps.

I learned about medical billing, coding, and insurance. Prior authorizations and pre-certifications are a crucial part of the medical insurance world, but learning how to navigate this world to provide better patient care is not something that is taught in school. I learned that no matter how badly you may want a test for a patient, you might have to order a different one first in order to avoid costing your patient thousands of dollars.

I truly believe that taking time off before school and gaining hands on experience helped prepare me for both PA school and my PA career. I was able to start school with a base of knowledge that my peers did not yet have.

I find myself using treatment methods and procedural techniques that I learned from the doctors I worked with while I was a medical assistant. I also understand the underbelly of insurance companies and the appropriate steps needed to ensure my patients don’t have to pay for things that are not going to be covered. And importantly, I developed an unbelievable tolerance for all things gruesome.

I think that taking time off and gaining hands-on experience made me a better practitioner, and I always recommend it to anyone who is thinking of getting into medicine. 

Jillian Knowles, MMS, PA-C, is an emergency medicine physician assistant in the Philadelphia area.