Learning Distance Education with University of Toronto’s PA Program

Alicia Petrie Physician Assistant

Alicia is a second year PA student at the University of Toronto. Prior to the PA program, she completed a BSc. In Kinesiology at McMaster University and worked at a multidisciplinary Physiotherapy clinic. Her interests in the musculoskeletal system led her to pursue her dream of becoming an Orthopedic PA, but her interest has also peaked in Family Medicine. Outside of school, Alicia likes to go camping and hiking. Alicia is now gainfully employed in family medicine!

Connect with twitter @AliciaPetriePA, LinkedIn and visit her blog Alicia Petrie PAS.

My Experience with PA Distance Education

The distance education portion of U of T may not be for everyone, but it’s been very efficient for me.

Residential Blocks & “Hands On” Learning

Throughout the year we have multiple “residential blocks” where we are in Toronto every day learning the hands-on application of what we learn at home. These range from 3-5 weeks long, and they’re very busy and structured. I was usually exhausted by the end of a res block.

When I got back home for the distance education portion, I was always relieved.

Online Classes

The online classes are a mixture of both synchronous (everyone logs in at once for a lecture) and independent (watching pre-recorded lectures on our own time). The up-side is that you get to work around your own schedule.

Late night study session for Diagnostic Tests & Procedures. Resource: Mosby’s Canadian Manual of Diagnostic and Laboratory Tests.

For example, if you’re a night person (like me), you have the option of watching your lectures at night when you’re most alert.

I love having the freedom to sleep in a bit later in the mornings or work around other commitments/appointments. This flexible schedule also frees you up for clinical placement opportunities, since some opportunities are only available certain days of the week (for example, an OR-day).

If necessary, you can take days off and make up the time the following day. You also have the option of getting all of your lectures & reading done early. Ultimately, you work at your own pace. The most beneficial part of online learning for me, however, was having the ability to pause, rewind, and re-watch lectures. I like to take detailed notes, so having this kind of freedom appeals to me.

Challenges of Distance Education

Like I said though, it’s not for everyone. You have to be disciplined enough to complete your work every day, time management skills are necessary to make a schedule. Nobody is tracking your progress or attendance, but your tests will come and go just as they would with regular lectures.

Additionally, sometimes school gets a little isolating when you don’t get to attend class and see your peers. Because of this, it’s of utmost importance to try and maintain balance in your life. Be sure to make time for yourself to unwind, which could include anything from jogging regularly to meeting up with friends for a few drinks. The program can be very stressful at times and it’s important that you don’t lose touch with yourself and your friends/family. Lastly, remember that you and your classmates are going through this together – they’re the only people who understand exactly how much you have on your plate right now. Try to keep in touch with classmates that might live in or around your home community and check the facebook group often.

I used to be skeptical of the distance education model. I think it comes down to an honest self-assessment: Do you need (or prefer) the guidance provided by a structured schedule?

A Benefit of Distance Education

The biggest “pro” for the distance education model at U of T is that it allows you to form connections in your home community. Between classes we are gaining clinical hours in our own cities and making relationships with health care providers. This can work to our benefit when we graduate and seek employment in the surrounding areas.

Alicia and her class of 2018 classmates finishing their final residential block and starting their 1st clinical rotation!

The “Rural” Component of UofT’s PA Program

The PA Consortium aims to bring PA education to rural, remote, and underserved communities in Ontario.

These areas have a higher need for PAs in health care, but have been somewhat isolated from PA education until the PA Consortium launched. As such, being a resident of a northern or rural community is one of the preferred admission criteria for the U of T PA program.

In terms of clinical clerkship, exposure to these communities is a mandatory part of the PA program at U of T. During clerkship year, each student completes half of their rotations in their “home” location (deemed either as Southern or Northern Ontario), and half in their “swap” location.

For example, as a resident of Southern Ontario I have the opportunity to complete half of my clerkship year in Northern Ontario. This is made possible through the partnership of U of T and Michener with The Northern Ontario School of Medicine. Here, I will be able to see first-hand how PAs are integrated into the health care system across Ontario and assess the need for PAs. It also helps to promote new PAs to work in the areas where they are needed the most.

WATCH/LISTEN: Geographic Distribution of the PA Consortium

Alicia’s Admissions Tips for PA Consortium

How I obtained health care experience for UofT PA Admissions

I gained my health care experience hours while working at a Physiotherapy clinic after I graduated Kinesiology. I functioned as a Physiotherapist Assistant. In this role, the Physiotherapist would create rehabilitation protocols and it was my responsibility to implement and progress them. I had an excellent relationship with the Physiotherapist and therefore gained a lot of autonomy with our patients.

My classmates have health care experience from a variety of backgrounds, which means we all have our own strengths and weaknesses. We are able to help one another out in our areas of expertise, which has been helpful throughout first year. Some examples of other HCE hours in the class include nursing, paramedic, international medical graduates, medical ward clerk, radiation therapy, etc.

How I verified my health care experience – My employer was able to verify that I have indeed completed the recommended amount of hours in the Physiotherapy Clinic. This was done through a very simple letter and was no more than a couple lines of confirmation with a signature. I was not registered in my practice, but had that been the case I would have had to submit proof of licensure/certification.

How Pre-PA students can ensure their health care experience is valid – Unfortunately, the PA program at U of T can’t confirm whether individual health care experience is valid or not. However, they make it very clear that all health-care experience counts.

This includes paid, volunteer, or clinical placement. The health care experience is evaluated based on the level of involvement in direct patient care, specific clinical duties performed, the level of supervision, total number of hours, and recency of experience. If you’re still not sure, I’d encourage you to apply anyway. You’ll never know unless you try!

Learning how to perform intradermal injections on a hotdog!

Importance of GPA in determining Acceptance to PA school

Importance of GPA depends on the program in question. At U of T, the application entails so much more than just GPA. There are a lot of opportunities to shine through reference letters, supplemental applications, and health care experience. I would argue that here, the GPA is only a small part of a much bigger assessment of a candidate.

A program that doesn’t involve reference letters or health care hours,  may rely more heavily on GPA for admission. Unfortunately the PA schools don’t publish their scoring formulas, so this is just based on speculation. That being said, the supplemental application is very important. Use it as your opportunity to prove you’re not just a number.

“… the supplemental application is very important. Use it as your opportunity to prove you’re not just a number.”

How I prepared for Admissions

When I started to prepare for admissions – I applied for all three schools in Canada, including Manitoba, which had a deadline in mid-January. I started preparing for Manitoba first, in November. The application at Manitoba required a much longer essay than McMaster or U of T, so when the time came to submit my supplemental applications for the others, I was able to extract a lot of information from my previous essay. My references were already lined up, so I was able to get my application done a bit earlier than necessary.  I would encourage students to start their application sooner rather than later to make sure they meet the deadline. Your references have to fill out their part of the application on their own time through their personal email address. If you send this email late, there’s a chance they won’t finish on time.

How I prepared for the MMI interviews – Reading “Doing Right” by Philip C Hebert is absolutely crucial. It provides you with a framework on how to approach ethical questions. There’s no need to take notes, as long as you’ve read through the book and taken the time to absorb it.

I also researched as many MMI question banks as I could find anywhere on the internet. I would practice a few questions a day by reading the question (for the first time), thinking for a minute and then preparing an answer. None of the questions I practiced were repeated, but they helped me think on my feet.

I also did my best to keep up to date with health news. I tried to form an opinion on any current controversies in the health care field. I regularly read CBC Health and kept up to date with the news.

Tips to Pre-PA Students to make their application competitive

I know there are people who think the required healthcare hours are a nuisance, but as I went through the program I realized just how much they helped me understand patient interactions. Getting the most direct, hands-on health care experience that you can will always be a plus.

If you’re still in the position to do so, taking relevant courses like anatomy, physiology, psychology, etc. will not only strengthen your application but will help you in PA school and throughout your career.

Otherwise, focus hard on your supplemental application. Treat it like the most important assignment you’ve ever done. As for your references, think of people who can speak about the qualities that will make you a better PA. If you apply once and don’t get in, I think it’s more important to focus on the clinical experience rather than your GPA.

Orthopedic Surgery rotation – the most valuable lesson learned that day was how surprisingly difficult it is to remain sterile.

Final Notes

I absolutely love the PA program. It’s a lot of work and it’s very busy, but when you’re passionate about something it’s much easier to pour yourself into it. Any time I’m ever feeling stressed before a test, I remind myself how hard I’ve worked to get here and how many other people would love to be in my position. I’m grateful to be a part of the PA movement in Canada.

Visit Alicia’s Blog »

ALICIA PETRIE physician assistant

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