Shadowing a physician will be one of the most important experiences you have as a pre-med student. Being at the doctors side, observing the process of medicine and patient care at work, will give you a great perspective on your chosen field. Spending some time with a physician will quickly show you whether or not you are meant for medicine. Not only will you get to see what it’s like to be a doctor, you will get personal experience working with patients. Medical school adcoms value this experience highly in applicants, because they know that you know what you’re getting into and that you truly love it.
Finding a doctor to shadow can be easy, or difficult, depending on how you go about it. It is much easier to ask a doctor that you already know if you can shadow them. Does your old pediatrician allow students to shadow? Ladies, does your OB/GYN allow students in the office? The best thing you can do is ask these doctors if they would allow you to shadow. If the answer is no, ask them to refer you to a doctor friend of theirs that they know allows students in the office.
If you don’t know a doctor personally (which is hard to imagine), do you know anyone (family, friends, coworkers) who have friends or family in the medical field? No doubt someone you know has a connection to a doctor. Ask them for that doctors office number so you can call and request to shadow. Even better, ask them for permission to use their name as reference when calling that doctor. Success in medicine goes hand in hand with making good connections. Here’s a good way to start networking!
If you have absolutely no other choice, try looking at a hospitals directory and pick out a few doctors to call from there. This method is often not as successful, but is still worth a try. Remember to always ask politely; shadowing is a privilege, not a right!
Once you have that shadowing position secured, you should take a few steps to prepare for your first day.
- What does that doctor prefer students to wear in the office? Scrubs? Professional attire?
- Will you be there all day? If so, you should probably bring a snack and a water bottle (not to be consumed in front of the patients obviously). Having your stomach growl loudly while the doctor is speaking to a patient is embarrassing!
- Do you have comfortable shoes? You might be walking and/or standing for hours. It is important to be comfortable and functional while you’re there.
- It is a good idea to bring a small notepad and pen to write down notes or names of diseases/conditions that you want to research later. This is also a good way to quickly write down questions you may think of to ask the doctor once you are finished with a patient.
When you go to the office, greet the doctor with a firm handshake and a smile. Introduce yourself and tell them that you are planning on applying to medical school. It is important to appear as confident as you can, even if you’re really nervous. If you’re not confident in yourself, the they will not be confident in you.
Until you know how the physician wishes you to handle your role, quietly observe the appointments without interrupting or asking questions until you both have a moment alone. The doctor may like it if you ask questions in front of the patients, or they may not want you to speak at all. You should wait and see how they prefer to handle your presence. Also, ask the doctor how they wish for you to greet the patient. Are you supposed to introduce yourself, or will they introduce you to the patient?
If the physician asks you a question, and you don’t know the answer, be honest! It looks a lot dumber to fake an answer and try to sound smart than to admit you don’t know something. They understand that you’re only an undergrad, and that your knowledge base of medicine is quite limited. They will not be expecting you to know what they’re talking about. Often, they ask you these questions because they want to gauge what you know and ultimately teach you something! That is why you’re there, right?
Note: When it comes to shadowing surgeries, keep a few points in mind. Shadowing a surgery can be VERY exciting, and I highly recommend anyone to try it at least once (if you can handle the blood). However, you are not getting to interact with the patients, especially if you arrive and leave while they’re under anesthesia. Medical schools look for QUALITY of experience in addition to quantity. If you spent 1,000 hours in the OR, but never spoke to any of the patients, your experience with medicine has been very limited. Surgery is a very specialized area of medicine. You should be applying with a wide breadth of experience, especially in the primary care fields. So don’t limit yourself to one specialty.
So how long should you shadow? It depends on the situation, but you should try to apply to medical school with as many hours as you can possibly get (as in the hundreds). If the doctor allows you to stay for an extended period of time, do it. I shadowed the same physician for two years, and by that time we had developed a great relationship. I have other pre-med friends who shadowed many different doctors over a few years. If you find that the specialty is boring or that you aren’t gaining enough for your time, then try to find another doctor. Even if you shadow a doctor for only a day, the experience is still valuable.
Another note: Keep track of the days and hours you spend with each doctor, in addition to their contact information. You will have to enter all of this information into your AMCAS application, and it must be as accurate as possible because they do check your numbers. This may be difficult information to remember if you are recalling it from months/years before, so keep it all logged as you go!
Make sure to be kind and respectful to every patient, staff member, and physician you come in contact with. You are highly privileged to be there. And thank the doctor every time you leave!
Have any questions or comments about shadowing? Have you thought of any additional advice you think would be helpful for other pre-meds? Leave it in the comment section below!