When debating whether to apply for medical school or not, potential applicants want to make an informed decision. Shadowing a physician can help with this by giving them a clear sense of what it’s like to be a doctor. Additional ways to get experience in the medical field include conducting clinical research, working as an office assistant in a private practice, volunteering with patients, or working as a medical interpreter, but they aren’t the same as shadowing.
Shadowing means observing physician-patient interactions like a fly on the wall. Since shadowing is so beneficial, several medical schools require it for entry; the amount of time might vary from school to school—some require twelve to twenty-four hours while others want seventy-five or more. Shadowing, in general, gives applicants a competitive advantage during the admissions process.
Some students start shadowing as early as high school, which can help them decipher what areas of medicine they enjoy most and then use that knowledge to narrow down which colleges to apply to.
Shadowing during college can help you decide which major to declare. In addition to hands-on experience, it provides insight into what a physician’s day-to-day work is like and how they interact with patients and families. It can also help you determine if a medical path is right for you.
While shadowing, students see how doctors interact with patients, witnessing how they deliver bad news or deal with difficult patients. Students get a taste of what medicine can and can’t provide, and they learn what life might be like on the other side of medical school.
Shadowing several doctors separately also helps students observe different physicians’ styles. It can help them clarify their initial impressions of the field, understand the limitations of medicine, discover likes and dislikes, and test their level of commitment.
You can find shadowing opportunities by asking around. Try your family doctor first to see if they have any colleagues who might be open to it. You can also contact your college’s pre-med advisor to help connect you with alumni physicians.
Sending an email to a physician might work as well. Introduce yourself, where you go to school, and state what stage of training you’re in. Then, express your interest and why you’d like to shadow them. Attach your resume to help the physician gain more insight into your background.
Minors may need a parent or guardian’s written permission to shadow a medical professional. You might need to present a current vaccination document to show you don’t present any risk of infection to patients. Demonstrating a thorough understanding of the Health Insurance Portability Accountability Act, known as HIPAA, may also be required.
Most students ask to shadow in half- or full-day increments, done on single occasions or over multiple days. The length of time will depend on the doctor’s clinic hours and availability, as well as your own preferences.
Even though you won’t be officially “working,” it’s important to dress professionally, or if your day involves surgery, confirm ahead of time where you can access scrubs. In most cases, you’ll need closed-toed shoes. Arrive on time and bring a notebook and pen along, but don’t record any confidential patient data. Write down any questions you think of while the doctor is consulting with a patient, and then ask at more polite times (away from the patient).
While shadowing, ask yourself the following questions:
Above all, when shadowing, be respectful and kind to everyone you come across, whether that’s administrative staff, patients, or families. Show your enthusiasm for the medical field while working with the physician. If you’d like to shadow again, ask before you leave to make the scheduling portion easy.
Be sure to send a thank-you note to the doctor when you’re finished shadowing. Use your notebook to reflect on anything that stood out to you—referring back to these experiences can be useful when writing your personal statements for med school.
It can help to know if your interest lies in a medical or surgical specialty. Family medicine, pediatrics, and internal medicine are the most common medical specialties, while general surgery, ophthalmology, and thoracic surgery are typical surgical specialties and are more procedural. It’s a good idea for first- and second-year students to seek opportunities in several different areas to find a field that suits them.