Ask Dr. Gray: Premed Q&A: Clarifying Clinical Experience—What Counts?

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Ask Dr. Gray: Premed Q&A: Clarifying Clinical Experience—What Counts?

Session 92

What counts as clinical experience? How many hours should you have when applying to med school? And is it okay to keep working a non-clinical job as a premed?

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[00:25] What Counts as Clinical Experience

“I am 24 years old, and I am applying to medical school in 2021 to start in 2022, which is a year from now, I’m currently working on taking postbac classes. It’s a do-it-yourself postbac program and I’m really trying to get my science GPA up above 3.0 as far as I can, as well as doing well on the MCAT.

Through undergrad, I accumulated around 3,000 hours of clinical experience as a physical therapy aide and a pharmacy technician. I have over 2,000 hours of volunteer experience, shadowing, things like that. Right now, it’s just my grades and my MCAT score. But through college, I worked as a server. The hours are flexible and the money’s good. It was just conducive to that crazy premed schedule. And right now while I am working on my postbac classes, I am also doing that. 

In addition, I am a director at a summer camp for kids with cancer. So that’s kind of continuing my volunteer leadership experience. But my question is even though my focus right now is my coursework and getting my GPA up, are medical schools going to frown upon the fact that I am working in a restaurant and not in a clinical setting, even though I have all these clinical experiences and did the full-time clinical research and things like that already?

[02:04] Are PTA and Pharmacy Tech Assistant Clinical Experiences?

This is a great question that comes up a lot, especially for nontraditional students who were on the premed path, to begin with.

So you’re applying to medical school, and most of your hours clinical wise are being a physical therapy assistant (a PTA) and a pharmacy tech. For me, a pharmacy tech is not a clinical experience. It’s a retail experience. You’re at a counter at a Walgreens or CVS or wherever you are at and interacting with patients. But it’s retail and a lot of schools are not going look at that as clinical experience.

“PTA is clinical experience, but it's in a physical therapy setting.”Click To Tweet

For students who have this physical therapy aide or assistant experience, I encourage you to put it on your application and list it as clinical experience. But have other and more clinical experience in a more traditional clinical setting.

At the end of the day, the question you’re trying to answer with your application is why do you want to be a doctor? 

And if you only have PTA experience and pharmacy tech experience, the question is, do you have enough experience to really show that you want to be a doctor? A lot of students do it because it’s easy. The hours are flexible and they fit with school schedules. It pays pretty decently. But that’s not clinical experience.

[03:59] What Counts as Clinical Experience?

Our student has accumulated around 2,000 hours of research experience, a quarter of which is clinical research, chart reviews. But chart review is not clinical experience. Just because you’re in a hospital doesn’t mean it’s clinical experience. Yes, it’s clinically related. But remember that the purpose of clinical experience is to determine why you want to be a doctor and being around patients.

The student also serves as the director at a pediatric oncology summer camp. They are patients in a sense, but not in the clinical setting. Being at a camp for pediatric oncology patients could be a clinical experience. It depends on what you’re doing though. If you’re only the director and you’re sitting in the office all day long, just managing then it’s not clinical experience. But there’s a potential for that to be a clinical experience.

'Just because it's a clinical setting doesn't mean it's clinical. Just because it's not in a clinical setting doesn't mean it's not clinical.'Click To Tweet

Whether it’s clinical or not, you’ve got to ask yourself, did you interact with patients? A lot of students would say they interacted with the patients some of the time. And some of the time they stocked shelves and cleaned the beds. Then that’s great. Just focus on the time that you spent with patients and only count those hours out of your total time. Estimate how much was clinical and put that in your application.

[06:52] Consistency Matters

It is a potential red flag to get all of your hours and say it’s enough. Let’s assume all of your clinical experiences are so amazing. But it was all in undergrad. And now you’ve been out of undergrad for a little while you’re doing your postbac and working as a server and not doing anything else. Just because time doesn’t permit doesn’t look great either.

“The whole point of the application is showing why you want to be a doctor.”Click To Tweet

Actions speak louder than words. And your actions many years ago show that you were very interested in medicine by getting all of that experience. But now your actions don’t speak that anymore. Your actions speak more towards you being a server.

Understandably, you have to pay bills and put a roof over your head and put food on the table. But you could still most likely get four to eight hours a month to still keep your foot in the door. That way, you could prove to yourself and show medical schools why you want to be a doctor. Plus, it will help you write a better personal statement and write better essays, do a better interview, and, potentially, be a better doctor. So your actions are backing up everything you’re saying.

Lastly, being a server isn’t a bad thing. It is a great experience in terms of communicating, leadership, and organization, and all that stuff. So you don’t have to quit serving. Just try to figure out a way to do some other stuff again to prove to yourself that this is still what you want.


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