While occasional surprises are inevitable, you do your best to plan for the future. Keeping your goal of becoming a physician at the top of your mind helps you focus on the things that really matter. For example, you know your time is better spent finding ways to demonstrate your preparedness for a career in medicine than stressing over one bad grade.
Since you know showing your passion and dedication to medicine is important, you’ve already begun filling your resume with meaningful experiences. Perhaps you’ve done volunteer work or participated in pre-med clubs. But now it’s time to set your sights on gathering clinical experience.
While serving as an emergency medical technician (EMT) or working as a medical scribe will certainly help you meet clinical experience expectations, it would also be in your best interest to figure out how to shadow a doctor. Don’t worry if you feel a little lost about how to get started. We have some pointers on how to add physician shadowing experience to your resume.
Before we dive into how to shadow a doctor, let’s take a closer look at why this type of experience is so important.
The advantage of shadowing a doctor
You’ve heard many times that it would be wise to show a doctor, but it’s important to understand why it’s so important. There’s actually a pretty practical reason to pursue this type of experience as you’re gearing up for medical school.
"Physician shadowing is essential for pre-meds."
“Physician shadowing is essential for pre-meds, because it's very difficult to know you want to be a physician if you haven't actually experienced what it means to practice medicine,” explains Dr. Jessica Freedman, Emergency Medicine Physician and founder of MedEdits Medical Admissions.
Additionally, gaining exposure to the medical field can help show medical school admissions teams that you’re dedicated to becoming a doctor.
How to shadow a doctor: 6 Tips for success
1. Start by researching specialties
It’s likely too early to determine exactly what type of doctor you’d like to become. That said, doing some initial research can help you gain a better understanding of which roles might be a good fit. Be sure to consider what topics interest you most, how you see yourself interacting with patients, and your inherent skills.
Though there are some students who have a very clear idea of what type of physician they ultimately want to become, many pre-meds don’t have such a clear direction — and that’s ok! Aiming for variety is going to be especially helpful for these students.
2. Search for opportunities
Figuring out how to shadow a doctor might seem intimidating, but there are several ways to set things in motion. If you’re still working toward attaining your undergraduate degree or have recently graduated, make use of your college network. U.S. News & World Report suggests starting your search by meeting with one of your school’s pre-med advisors. Many employees who work with pre-med students at undergraduate institutions have a good understanding of what’s out there.
"They’ll have leads on various summer programs available."
“They’ll have leads on various summer programs available that might include shadowing as part of a health professions program,” Dr. Freedman explains.
You can also reach out to other students who are interested in medicine. And if you know of any graduates who’ve gone on to medical school, ask them about shadowing experiences they gained prior to acceptance.
Speaking to your personal doctor can also be helpful. “Doctors know doctors, so go to your pediatrician from when you were a kid,” Dr. Freedman suggests. If your physician isn’t able to personally accommodate you, they can help point you in the right direction.
3. Voice your request
Once you have one or more doctors in mind, go ahead and ask if they would allow you to shadow them. Different physicians may have their own communication preferences, but Dr. Freedman has some suggestions about how to begin reaching out.
"Start with an email, just because people tend to respond faster with email."
“Start with an email, just because people tend to respond faster with email,” she says. “If, after a few days, someone hasn’t replied to your email, then give them a phone call.”
And don’t forget to share your rationale. Express why you’re interested in medicine and be clear about why you want to shadow the specific physician you’re contacting.
4. Make the most of your experience
You might feel a little nervous before starting your first day, but there’s really no need to worry. No one is going to expect anything from you.
“The objective of this experience is for you to gain exposure to that specialty so you can learn more about the practice of medicine,” Dr. Freedman points out. “You’re not there to learn to be a doctor — that’s going to happen later.”
There are some things you can do to ensure your experience is positive, though. Start with dressing the part. “Look professional,” Dr. Freedman advises. “Look the way you would want your doctor to look.”
“Look the way you would want your doctor to look.”
She also notes the importance of being respectful to everyone from patients to administrative staff and making sure you don’t overstep. It’s not always appropriate to ask questions, so make sure you’re following the physician’s lead. Some doctors are happy to teach and may even give you assignments to complete before your next shadowing shift.
You should also know there’s a spectrum of patients. Many will have no concerns about your presence. One study, though somewhat small, suggests the majority of patients feel neutral about a pre-med student being present. But others might feel uneasy about someone they don’t know attending their appointment.
In either case, you need to respect patient privacy. That means no speaking or writing about patients in a way that could reveal their identity. You may even be required to sign a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) form in order to shadow.
5. Don’t stop at one
You may be wondering how much shadowing experience to gain before moving on. The truth is there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. It will vary from one experience to the next, and from one pre-med to the next. But Dr. Freedman believes more is better.
"Shadow many different physicians, in many specialties, in many settings."
“Shadow many different physicians, in many specialties, in many settings,” she recommends. She points out that practicing in a community outpatient clinic is vastly different from practicing in an academic hospital. The more diverse experiences you can gain, the better prepared you’ll be to enter the field.
“You shadow until it’s boring,” Dr. Freedman says. “Once the learning has ceased, that’s when it’s time to be done.”
6. End on a high note
Many pre-meds ask physicians they’ve shadowed to pen a letter of recommendation. This can be a great option, so make sure you start thinking about it in advance. Dr. Freedman suggests bringing it up on your last day shadowing. They may want to see a copy of your CV or ask you some questions, so make sure you discuss a plan for how to proceed.
While it’s great to get a reference letter from a physician you’ve shadowed, don’t feel obligated to secure tons of them. In fact, one is more than likely enough.
"Physician shadow letters are more character references than anything."
“Physician shadow letters are more character references than anything,” Dr. Freedman explains. “They are not the strongest or the most important letters in your portfolio.” She adds that letters penned by instructors and researchers are often more valuable since those individuals can comment on work you’ve done.
When you’ve completed your experience, you should consider sending a thank you note. “It’s always good to say thank you in a formal way,” Dr. Freedman offers. Hand-written letters and emails are both appropriate.
Forge your own path
Now that you have some tips on how to shadow a doctor, you can see that gaining this type of experience isn’t as difficult as you might have guessed. Many physicians have happily allowed future medical students to accompany them for days, weeks, or even months.
As you continue to gather clinical exposure, start thinking more specifically about how to put together your medical school applications. You’ll need to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), select programs, and prepare for interviews. Learn more about what applying to programs entails by taking a look at our article, “A Sneak Peek at the Medical School Application Process.”
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