How To Effectively Shadow a Physician as a Premed Student

Shadowing as a PremedShadowing can be a deciding factor in getting into medical school. Today we’re going to cover how to shadow a doctor, dos and don’ts, and how to make the most of the experience.

But First, Why Is Shadowing So Important for Premeds?

When you shadow a doctor, you’re mostly just following them around as they do their 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. Why?

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.

Shadowing gives you a very tangible sense of what life is like for a practicing physician.Click To Tweet

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.

Putting yourself in clinical settings like this, especially if you get to interact with patients, lets admissions committees know that you have some understanding of what you are getting into. It 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.

Shadowing Doctors at Different Stages in Your Journey

When should you shadow a doctor? You should shadow doctors at different steps in your journey, but especially when you are:

  • trying to decide whether you want to be a doctor
  • looking for letters of recommendation for medical school
  • trying to choose a medical specialty

Let’s go over all three of these. First, shadowing doctors 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 very helpful here, as it can give you a real sense of the 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. This can go a long way in getting this person in your corner for your application.

Shadowing can give you a huge opportunity to work closely with a physician who could provide you with a letter of recommendation.Click To Tweet

Shadowing is also helpful during medical school, as it can give you an opportunity to work with different medical specialties. Choosing a specialty can be difficult for some medical students, and along with your clinical rotations, talking to various physicians, and listening to interviews with doctors in different specialties, shadowing can help you choose a specialty.

How to Find Opportunities to Shadow Doctors

Before doing anything, think about which medical specialties you’re most interested in. It will be easier to find the right physicians to shadow if you have specific specialties in mind. That being said, 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 add to your perspective!

After you’ve got a specialty or two in mind, use Google to find hospitals and clinics near you where you might be able to shadow. One of the best ways to find a particular physician to shadow is to reach out directly with a cold call or cold email. Physicians are often happy to have potential future physicians working with them. You can send an email and express your interest in shadowing.

After 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.

[Related episode: Does Shadowing a Family Member Look Bad?]

Do’s and Don’ts of Shadowing Doctors

There are some things you can and should do when shadowing a doctor, 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’re 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’re 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 notes 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 doesn’t want you in the room for a visit, 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.
Don’t wear a white coat when shadowing as a premed. You're not a medical practitioner yet, so you shouldn’t be donning one.Click To Tweet

[Related episode: How Do MD Schools View Shadowing DOs?]

How To Maximize Your Shadowing Experience

  • Before your shadowing day, listen to episode 67 of the OldPreMeds Podcast about how to prepare for your first shadowing 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, pros and cons.
  • 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, be willing to 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.
Keep a journal about what you see when shadowing. These stories may help you frame your personal statement for medical school later on!Click To Tweet

Links and Other Resources