Why Is Shadowing Important?
Shadowing a physician is a vital experience for anyone who is interested in attending medical school. Shadowing will allow you to see what a physician’s job entails and will allow you to observe the way in which the healthcare system works. In addition, it will help you decide if a career in medicine. Furthermore, medical schools will expect that serious applicants have significant clinical experience before they apply. Shadowing is a great opportunity to gain valuable clinical experience and make yourself a more attractive candidate for medical schools.
What Constitutes a Shadowing Experience?
Simply put, shadowing involves joining a physician in the hospital or in their office and following them as they perform their daily activities. You will observe as they interact with patients and perform their administrative work. In many cases, you will have the opportunity to watch a variety of procedures and begin to learn some of the basics of medical practice.
Most premedical students are eager to begin shadowing physicians, however, they often find it difficult to find a position. Although finding the perfect clinical experience can require some advance planning, there are many physicians who are eager to teach premeds.
Ask Family and Friends
The best place to start looking for an opportunity is with people you know. If you have parents who are in the medical field, ask them if any of their colleagues would be willing to have you join them. Similarly, if your friends have parents who are physicians, you should ask them if they would allow you to shadow them. If you do not have any close friends or relatives in the healthcare field, your next step should be to contact your personal physician. In many cases, they will be happy to have you visit their office.
Get Help from Your School
Many schools are able to assist their students obtain clinical shadowing opportunities. Often, they will keep a list of places where previous students have successfully gained clinical experience. Start by asking the premedical adviser at you school for help. They may be able to assist you in getting that perfect shadowing opportunity.
Call Local Healthcare Facilities
If the above methods do not work for you, the next step is to contact healthcare facilities directly. Look up physician offices and hospitals in your area. First try reaching out to privately owned offices. You will likely find that it is easier to arrange time in this sort of facility. Most hospitals have lots of regulations regarding volunteers. You will likely find that it is more difficult to secure a position at a hospital. In addition, it will likely take much longer to get set up to shadow in a hospital. For small offices, you may find that the easiest approach is to call and ask to speak to the office manager. Explain that you are a premedical student who wishes to volunteer in their office. If they are accepting volunteers, they will give you further instructions.
It is sometimes more difficult to set up time in a hospital. Your first step should be to contact their volunteer and medical staff offices. Often, somebody there will be be able to assist you. Another option is to send emails to individual physicians. However, even if a physician agrees to host you, they will need to obtain approval from the hospital – which may take awhile. Therefore, give yourself plenty of time to obtain a position.
How to Shadow Effectively
Many students quickly become bored or frustrated by shadowing. They complain that they are not allowed to interact with patients directly or contribute in any meaningful way. However, if you use your time effectively, you can gain a lot from shadowing. For example, a good clinical experience can:
- help you get letters of recommendation
- teach you the way a medical practice functions
- introduce to you basic pharmacology
- demonstrate clinical decision making
- give you discussion points for medical school interviews
- provide topics for your personal statement
The above is hardly a comprehensive list. The point is that you can gain a lot from shadowing a physician. Even if you find that you are not interested in that particular specialty, you should plan to put your best effort into the experience. Your efforts will repay you later.
You should present yourself as a professional. Arrive to your designated location punctually and dressed appropriately. (Ask beforehand about the dress code- scrubs may be acceptable in some offices but others require business casual attire). In addition, make sure you set up a definite schedule with your preceptor. Decide on specific dates and times and do not stray from them. If you are unable to attend a session, call well in advance and inform the office of your upcoming absence.
You will see a variety of fascinating things during your clinical experience. Unfortunately, you will forget many of them if you fail to keep track of them. Take a notebook with you and record what you observe. Make sure that you respect the patients’ privacy in your notes. Do not include patients names or other identifying data. Your notebook is also good for writing down questions that you have during patient encounters. You can ask the physician about them during down time.
Each day after you leave your clinical site, you should review your notes. Take the opportunity to read more about a diagnosis or interesting topic that you encountered. This is an easy way to quickly improve your knowledge and give yourself an advantage for medical school.
Keep an Open Mind
You may feel that you have already decided on the field of medicine that you will pursue. Although you may be right, it is way too early to commit yourself to any particular specialty. Accept shadowing opportunities with a variety of physicians and learn as much as you can from each of them. Even if you are certain that you are not interested in a particular field of medicine, you can still learn a lot from observing the doctors at work.
Your initial clinical experiences are an exciting introduction to the healthcare field. Enjoy this time and learn as much as you can!