While it may not be a mandatory part of your application to medical school, you will want to spend time shadowing a physician as part of your pre-med experience and education. In addition to experiencing primary patient-care firsthand through pre-med clinical experience, adding shadowing hours to your resume is going to enhance your understanding of what day-to-day medical practice can be like—and how challenging it is. Not only that, but shadowing a physician in the specialty you want to pursue (although you should definitely keep an open mind about that) can help confirm that this what you want to do every day for the rest of your life. It’s a big decision, as you know, so it’s one you’ll want to make with as much information as possible. So how can you contact a physician to arrange a pre-med shadowing opportunity?
What is your motivation?
Before you set off contacting physicians, think about what you’d like to get out of your pre-med shadowing opportunity, what you hope to see and learn, and how this fits in with your overall goals. This will help focus you on a specific subset of physicians or practices, and also help you make a much more compelling pitch when you reach out to arrange a visit. Think about what you can learn from each type of clinical setting, for example, what you will see in a large teaching hospital compared to a smaller community health clinic. Is there a particular health specialty you’re interested in like cardiology or oncology?
Do not wait.
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 AMCAS. 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.
Use your network.
But first, 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, pre-health advising office, and classmates for leads on physicians or shadowing programs. Your advisor especially 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 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.
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. First, no mass emails. 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. Keep it brief — doctors are busy — and phrase your request as just that. 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. This is also a good time to mention any certifications you have that are commonly requested, such as patient information and privacy regulations. Start with contacting a few and wait for responses before moving down your list, and only contact one doctor per department. 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. Remember starting your search early? This is why. 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.