Premed Students: A Guide to Maximizing Physician Shadowing

July 22, 2016

Applying to medical school? Shadowing a doctor is a smart decision that is sure to make an impact. Yes, the experience will help your application stand-out when applying to medical school, as shadowing allows you to authenticate your commitment to medicine in a tangible way. But, that’s not all – shadowing offers unique insight into what happens in the day-to-day life of a physician.

kaiser permanente technologyA career in medicine is not for the faint of heart, and only with this knowledge can you truly be confident in your decision to become a physician. How else will you know for certain that a career in medicine is right for you? By shadowing, you’ll log enough clinical hours to make yourself and admissions committees sure that you know what you’re signing up for. This how to make the experience happen:


1) Know What it Means to Shadow a Physician

Shadowing is the act of following a physician as the physician carries out typical work activities in a clinic or hospital. While shadowing, you observe a physician to get an understanding of what it’s like to work with patients, with other health care practitioners (nurses, PAs, etc.), and what the challenges and rewards are of working in the medical profession.


2) When to Shadow

Shadowing can be advantageous at multiple points in a student’s life. As early as high school, and into college years, shadowing can offer direction to someone considering a career in medicine. During these stages, shadowing offers the real-world experience necessary for a student to choose a major or define a career path.

If you are applying to medical school in the near future, you’ll need to lock-down quality references. While shadowing, you will learn from a physician who may then provide you with a letter of recommendation. As you observe the profession, you can also demonstrate your enthusiasm and natural talents to the physician and their team. This will help you build your professional network, and get others to root for your success in the field.

As a medical school student, shadowing continues to provide beneficial opportunities. Shadowing will allow you to explore different medical specialties in greater depth before you advance to residency.


3) Finding Opportunities to Shadow

Begin by asking yourself, “Why am I interested in medicine? What specific aspects of medicine intrigue me?” While you may not know the exact medical specialty you want to pursue, you’ll need to choose an area of medicine prior to finding a physician to work with. It is recommended that you start with the foundations of medicine by shadowing internal medicine physicians or family medicine physicians. From there, make a list of medical specialties that you would like to know more about.

There are multiple ways to make a connection with a doctor. Many students reach out to family members or acquaintances in the medical field; one such resource may be your family doctor where you’ve already established a relationship. Doctors know other doctors, and, once you’ve expressed an interest, they may be able to help you make new connections too.

Next, directly email the physician of your choice. Be clear with your goals, professional in your approach and attach your resume as proof of you passion. If you don’t hear back from the initial message, call or send a follow-up email. Be sure to keep your communications extremely polite. Don’t feel shy. Many doctors are excited to share ideas and experiences with students. They often have a passion for teaching and are natural teachers at heart.

Once a physician has approved you as a shadow, you will need to complete paperwork before you begin. Discuss the length of your shadowing experience with the physician and how many hours/days of the week you will shadow.


4) Make or Break Your Experience

It is important to make the most of your experience shadowing while taking care to avoid actions that are detrimental to your professional relationship with the doctor. Here is a break-down of many important “do’s and don’ts” of shadowing:

  • Be an inquisitive observer. Ask questions, but only when the timing is appropriate. Rounds and clinic schedules may be very busy. Do not interject questions during busy times as you may be taking time away from patient care. This can be frustrating to patients, physicians, and their team members.
  • Be an inquisitive observer. Ask questions, but only when the timing is appropriate. Rounds and clinic schedules may be very busy. Do not interject questions during busy times as you may be taking time away from patient care. This can be frustrating to patients, physicians, and their team members.
  • Research the latest medical information while shadowing. Reading about relevant medical conditions and asking insightful questions will demonstrate your interest and commitment.
  • Be discreet and inconspicuous. Do not take attention from the work at hand. If patients don’t want you in the room during a visit or on rounds, respect their wishes.
  • Plan your shadowing experience so that it isn’t superficial. This means shadowing the same physician for an extended period. You want to get to know the physician and the practice. This requires a commitment of patience and time.
  • Keep a journal of your daily reflections. Your notes may help you frame your personal statement for medical school applications or when matching for a residency.
  • Be willing to work and take on projects while you are shadowing. If you’re asked to help with filing or research, be open to the experience.
  • Be punctual, dress professionally and appropriately. Keep your nails free of polish or keep it neutral. Tie your hair back. Wear closed-toe shoes. Don’t wear a white coat, you are not quite yet a medical practitioner.


5) Seal the Deal

Hand write a thank you note and send it by mail or deliver it by hand. Demonstrate that you are an appreciative student, and that you are worth maintaining a professional relationship with. You’re entering a field centered on taking care of others’ health. Show that you are both compassionate and gracious.

As you continue on in your studies and career, send an occasional update to the physician. Share your story and ask how they are doing. This is key to cultivating your network. If you haven’t kept in contact, it may delay a response when you need help with a letter of recommendation, job opportunity, or professional guidance.


Now, go forth and shadow – your future awaits!

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