How Can I Become a Personal Care Assistant (PCA)?

Explore the career requirements for personal care assistants. Learn about the job duties, education requirements, licensure, salary, and job outlook to find out if this is the right career for you. Schools offering Medical Assisting degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

Career Information At a Glance

Personal care assistants may help their patients with daily needs and activities. The table below provides an overview of the general requirements for this career.

Training Required On-the-job and specialized training
Key Responsibilities prepare meals, complete household chores, ensure patient safety, help patient maintain dietary instructions
Licensure/Certification Required Licensure is not required by state or employers. Certification is optional.
Job Growth (2012-22) 49% for all personal care aides*
Average Salary (2014) $19,340 for personal care aides*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Positions Are Available for Personal Care Assistants?

Personal care assistants may also be referred to as personal care attendants, home health aides, caregivers or home care aides, according to O*Net OnLine (www.onetonline.org). According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), as a personal care assistant (PCA), you might live and work with a single patient on a short- or long-term basis (www.bls.gov). It is more likely, however, that you will need to commute and visit several clients over the course of a day or week. You may also find a more permanent position in a residential facility, hospice or other non-institutional setting. Adult day health centers or nursing homes may also be an option.

You may also want to consider working in a Medicare-certified nursing home. According to medicare.gov, the Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE) provides personal care assistants along with other services to qualifying Medicare or Medicaid patients (www.medicare.gov). The program is designed for patients who may need extra care or supervision before or after being in the hospital.

What Skills Do I Need?

The types of skills you need will usually depend on your position. In general, you may prepare meals, do housework and ensure that your patient is safe and comfortable. If you work with more than one patient, you will need dependable transportation. Other skills might include the ability to follow specific dietary instructions, handle strenuous physical activity and work with potentially difficult patients.

The BLS indicates that there are some small differences between home health aides and personal and home care aides, however. Home health aides usually work for government-funded agencies such as hospice, so they have strict accountability requirements. In this type of placement, you would work under the supervision of medical or mental health staff. In addition to record keeping and records management skills, you may also need strong observation and interpersonal communication skills.

Personal and home care aides may also be referred to as homemakers or companions, according to the BLS. In this position, you may monitor vital signs, assist with dispensing medicine, change bandages and provide assistance with prosthetic devices such as artificial limbs. After specialized training, you may be prepared to assist with more sophisticated life-support equipment such as ventilators.

Will I Need Formal Training?

Even though the BLS states you don't need high school equivalency or prior training to obtain personal and home care aide positions, you may want to take some classes to prepare for the career. While some of these courses cover basic hygiene and grooming, others focus on handling medical equipment and devices such as urinary catheters, prosthetic appliances and oxygen tanks.

Certificate programs generally include coursework and clinical experience in basic nursing and specialized care. You would likely learn how to draw blood, operate heart monitors and other medical equipment. If you are interested in obtaining certification, the BLS states that The National Association for Home Care and Hospice provides national certification opportunities.

If you work for an agency that bills Medicare or Medicaid, however, the BLS states that specific training is required due to federal regulations. While the minimum requirement is the completion of a 75-hour, state certified program, you may take a competency exam instead. Even if you pass the exam, you still need to have 16 or more hours of on-the-job training prior to working with patients. The BLS also reports that the average salary for personal care aides in home health care services in May 2014 was $19,340. The same sources reports the projected job growth for the same group in 2012-2022 is 49%, which is much faster than averages for all occupations.

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