Shadowing can be a deciding factor in getting into medical school. Shadowing is the act of following a physician as he/she does his/her typical work activities in a clinic or hospital setting. You might ask why this experience can be so important.
First, it may be the defining experience which tells you whether or not you want to be a physician.
Well, shadowing gives you a very tangible sense of what life is like for a practicing physician. Through working alongside a physician, you can get a unique insight into what happens in a day in the life of a physician.
You get a sense of what it’s like working with patients, working with other health care practitioners (nurses, PAs, and others), and what the challenges and rewards are of working in the medical profession.
Shadowing can also be crucial for a second reason: Having clinical experience like this lets admissions committees know that you understand that you have some understanding of what you are getting into.
It also shows admissions officers your commitment to a medical career because you have taken initiative in learning about being a physician prior to applying to medical school.
When to Shadow
There are several times when shadowing can be useful. First, it can be useful in high school or college when you’re trying to figure out if you’d like to be a physician. Maybe you’re trying to choose your major and better define your future career path. Shadowing can be hugely helpful here, as it can give you a real sense of what kind of work physicians do.
Next, if you are thinking of applying to medical school soon, shadowing can give you a huge opportunity to work closely with a physician who could provide you with a letter of recommendation. Shadowing doesn’t mean only observing – you can show your enthusiasm and interest while working with a physician, and this can go a long way in getting this person in your corner when it comes to your application. Shadowing is also helpful down the line in medical school, as it can give you an opportunity to work with different medical specialities.
Where to Begin
Before doing anything, think about which medical specialties might capture your interest. You need to choose an area of medicine before you find a physician to work with, however, sometimes you might get an opportunity to work with someone in a field you didn’t think you’d be interested in. Don’t pass on such opportunities – they can only help!
Then google around to find hospitals and clinics near you where you might be able to shadow. One of the best ways to find a particular physician is to reach out to him/her directly. Physicians are almost always happy to have potential future physicians work with them. You can send an email and express your interest in shadowing him/her.
Once you have received the approval of the physician, you may have to do some paperwork before you can begin. You will also need to establish the length of your shadowing experience and figure out how many hours/days per week you will be shadowing there.
Do’s and Don’ts
There are some things you can and should do, and there are some things you definitely should be careful not to do when shadowing:
- Be direct and brief in your emails when expressing your interest in shadowing. Attach your resume to give physicians more information about you and your background.
- Be punctual, every day. As they say in the military – early is on-time, on-time is late, and late is not acceptable.
- Wear professional attire. If you are shadowing a surgeon and have the opportunity to observe in the OR, ask where you can get scrubs in the hospital/clinic, or purchase them. Keep your nails free of polish or keep it neutral. Wear closed-toe shoes, not only because they are more professional-looking but also because when you are in a hospital setting you may be exposed to liquids, chemicals and sharp objects. Don’t wear a white coat; you are not a medical practitioner yet so you shouldn’t be donning one.
- Bring a notebook and a pen to jot down notes. Make note of things to ask later at a better time. Document experiences so you can remember them later for your applications.
- Be as discreet and inconspicuous as possible. If a patient does not want you in the room for the visit or on rounds, you must respect this and step out.
- Be observant. Ask questions at appropriate times. You may find that rounds are very busy due to high patient volume, and the same may be true for a physician’s clinic schedule. If things are very busy, you should not interject your questions. Asking questions when things are busy can take time away from patient care, and it can make other members of the team (or the physician you are shadowing) frustrated – this is the last thing you want to do. Remember, this is not just a chance to learn about a field of medicine – it’s also a unique opportunity to show your enthusiasm and respect.
How To Maximize the Experience
- Read about things you learn while shadowing. You are not expected to have any medical knowledge, but reading about diseases and asking insightful questions can demonstrate your interest.
- Shadow the same physician for a good chunk of time, e.g. every day for a couple of weeks or 3 times per week for a summer. Spending real time with a physician will give you a much better sense of the medical profession, more so than if you spend a couple of days.
- Keep a journal of your reflections on what you see every day – they may help you frame your personal statement for medical school later on!
- Ask questions about what it’s like to be a physician – lifestyle, happiness.
- Be open and willing to do some work while you’re there! If you’re asked to file something or look something up to help in the daily grind in the clinic or hospital, do it and do it well!
- When you conclude your shadowing experience, request a letter of recommendation from the physician with whom you worked for your application to medical school.