One of the best ways to demonstrate your commitment to medicine in your application to medical school is by shadowing a doctor as a part of your clinical experience. Although it’s not a requirement, shadowing will indicate that you’ve done the research to determine that a career in medicine is right for you. You’ll get an inside look at the day-to-day in the life of a physician, gain insight into what specialties might interest you down the road, and gain valuable connections that could help you get into medical school and, potentially, even get a job when you’ve finished your medical training.
When should I start shadowing?
Start your search early, much earlier than when you’d like to start your physician shadowing. It’s unlikely you’ll search, contact, and connect with a willing physician right away. Even after you do, your schedules may not line up for several weeks. So don’t expect to cram your pre-med shadowing hours into a few weeks before you start your primary application. Some schools offer a formal shadowing program with hour requirements, organized through an advising office. If that’s the case for you, stay on top of those deadlines. Still a freshman? Focus on your core science grades and building good study habits; you’ll have plenty of time for pre-med shadowing experiences later in college.
Find a Doctor to Shadow
Make a list of medical specialties that you’d like to know more about. If you’re really at a loss, start with the basics: internal medicine, family medicine, or pediatrics.
Know that it can behoove you to learn about multiple medical fields by shadowing doctors with different specializations. Admissions committees like to know that you’ve seen a wide range of medical specialties by the time you apply to their program.
But before you get too far, here’s, a quick “don’t” for physician shadowing: Don’t shadow a family member. Admissions committees frown on it, and you won’t get to practice some of the softer skills of shadowing like building relationships. Do leverage your network, including professors, your pre-health advising office, and classmates for leads on physicians or shadowing programs. Your advisor in particular can point you to medical practices or practitioners with whom others had a good experience previously. Seek out students who have already been accepted to medical school or are farther along in their journey and ask for leads. If you don’t know anyone who can serve as a reference, that’s ok. You can start with your own physician, even if it’s to ask for a referral for another doctor or practice. Or, you can hit Google and look up doctors practicing in the fields you’d like to explore, and email them or cold-call their office directly. You can also do this if there’s a particular type of medicine you’d like to observe. Doctors at teaching hospitals and those affiliated with universities will usually have their contact information available somewhere. Be resourceful.
How to Start Medical Shadowing
Whether you’re reaching out to a physician who has worked with other students in your school or cold-calling, you’ll want to reach out with the same professionalism you’d use when contacting a future employer. Take the time to personalize each email, and include who you are, why you’re reaching out, whether anyone referred, and what you’re looking to gain from a shadowing opportunity. You can also attach your resume. Keep it brief — doctors are busy — and make sure you’re requesting, not demanding, this opportunity. Even doctors who are generous with their time and teaching will bristle at your demanding their time. Close by offering your availability and asking when a good time and date would work with their schedule.
Start by contacting a few doctors and wait for responses before moving down your list.. Don’t give up if you don’t hear back from everyone you reached out to, or don’t hear back right away. Politely follow up after a week or so if you haven’t heard anything, and move on if you don’t get a reply. Starting your search early will give you flexibility, even if you get a low response rate. If you’re calling a practice, you may speak to the practice administrator, or hospital volunteer or community relations staff. Use the same business etiquette you would if you were inquiring about a job.
What to Expect From Pre-Med Shadowing
Most likely, you’re not going to be an integral part of the medical practice while shadowing as an undergrad pre-med student. You’ll mostly be a silent observer in the office, learning from an attending physician and watching as she conducts her practice. You will be introduced to patients and the patients will likely be asked whether it’s ok for you to be there to observe.
As a prospective medical student, you may also be asked to participate in patient care. If so, ask for permission before you touch a patient, move them, etc. You will also have to follow hygiene protocols like using gloves, for example, or the hand sanitizer. Your number one concern is the patient in front of you. As such, make sure that everything you say and do in the patient’s space keeps them comfortable. If you have questions, save them for later. You don’t want to accidentally alarm a patient by asking something the doctor hasn’t covered.
Politely—and only when the time is right—ask good questions. Read up on the cases that you see during your time shadowing and bring questions from your readings. Express interest in the field even if you have none (it’ll be good practice for rotations during your third and fourth year as a medical student). Offer to be helpful in any way you can. Many shadowing and clinical experiences turn into opportunities to get letters of recommendation.