As we look through the requirements for medical school, many of us feel overwhelmed. Who knows how their life is going to look like ten years from now? Most online sites quote “shadowing a physician is one of the best things a pre-medical student can do to get exposure to the clinical setting and medical field.” Inevitably, during your medical school interview, you will be asked about prior experience and what field you are considering going into. I remember thinking to myself while I was applying to medical school: Other than the few times I went to a pediatrician for my vaccinations, I have never met a “real” doctor in my life. I had no concept of shadowing then.
What is shadowing?
Traditionally, “shadowing” is following a doctor during her/his clinical practice in order to get exposure to the clinical setting. We will focus on how to get the most of the traditional shadowing experience but that is not the only way to get exposure to a clinical setting. While I was in college, I worked as a health educator for a women’s Clinic and I also worked as an EMT. Experiences that put you in the hospital or clinical setting are a great way to get exposure to a field in medicine. You may also consider volunteering at hospitals, health fairs, free clinics or even becoming a certified medical interpreter if you happen to be bilingual. Just make sure it’s real exposure with patients and physicians.
Ultimately, admission committees want to know that you have an idea of what the life of a physician is like and that you are making an informed decision in going into the field of medicine. Seeking a broad exposure to medicine from the exciting cases to the everyday office visits shows that you have a more educated idea of what the day-to-day would be like as a physician.
How to find a physician to shadow?
Sometimes, finding someone to shadow may be hardest thing to do. If you happen to know someone in medicine, that would be the first way to go. Don’t be afraid to cold-call offices. Most physicians welcome an enthusiastic observer.
Otherwise, some colleges have pre-health networks or medical academies that offer opportunities for shadowing. Signing up to volunteer at an academic medical center may also create opportunities to meet physicians whom you may shadow. Pre-health groups are usually paired with medical students at a nearby medical school who may also be great at directing you to physicians who would be open to the experience.
Person to shadow? Check. What else should I know?
Be professional. Since you will be in contact with patients, it’s best to wear business attire. If in doubt, overdress for the first day until you can get a feeling for what is acceptable in the office. For men, that should be dress pants, shirt, and tie, and for women, dresses or professional business attire.
Many physicians welcome questions, as it shows you’re paying attention and interested—but it’s best to hold the questions until the end of a patient encounter or at the end of the day. You may bring a notebook to write down questions and subjects you would want to look-up or discuss afterwards. Most of the time, you mainly stand back and observe what the physician does without doing anything yourself. Some physicians may involve you to some degree, may let you listen to lung fields, for example. If so, great, but don’t expect too much. You want to avoid inadvertently interrupt a patient exam or rounds.
Shadowing in an academic setting can be especially helpful, since you will be with medical students, residents, and a supervising physician. Since this setting is already designed to account for teaching time, having an extra student is easy to accommodate and usually welcome. Of course, shadowing a community physician is also valuable, though the physician and their patients, may be less accustomed to an additional person in the exam room.
I shadowed. Now what?
Continue to contact with that physician if you are interested in the field. Once you find a shadowing opportunity, spending a longitudinal amount of time helps you communicate your interests in medicine more effectively to admissions committees. Show that you are committed to a few hours a week/month. Realize that you can set up your shadowing however you like. Some people like to shadow a few hours every week for several weeks or months. Many students schedule their shadowing experiences during the summer when they are out of school for a few weeks, and would highly recommend it to anyone.
Final Comments: Be professional, be enthusiastic and develop relationships. Your shadowing experience can lead to life-long mentor or someone who would support you with a letter of recommendation.