Q: What is shadowing and why is it important?

A: Shadowing is following a physician around for some time and medical schools these days EXPECT to see it in your application. Read on!

One of the most important aspects to a successful medical school application is letting the admission committees know that you are aware of the day to day business of doctoring. They want to make sure that you did not just wake up and decide to go to med school; they want to see that you have made a commitment to learn what the job entails.

The best way to show the adcoms that you understand this is through ‘clinical experience.’ This usually means both hospital volunteering and following/shadowing a physician for several hours or days. Sometimes it also includes paid clinical work either as a phebotomist or EMT or something else related, but those professions take time and money and require extensive certification procedures that really are not necessary prerequisities for medical school. By and far, the best way to learn about what being a doctor is like is to follow one around for a while!

Contacting and setting up a plan to shadow is not too complicated. The easiest thing to do would be to ask a family member physician to introduce you to a colleague who would accept you for a day or two. If you are like myself and are the first med school bound family member, just ask your primary care physician or pediatrician to either let you follow them or get them in touch with someone who would be okay with it. It isn’t really necessary to choose a specific specialty to follow unless you are very set on a particular one or are just extremely interested. Know that it involves a bit more planning to observe hospitalists or surgeons at work than it does to learn about the workings of the private practice doc (see below).

After you have a confirmed day or set of days scheduled to shadow, relax! Find some business casual clothes to wear. Don’t go all out coat and tie or business suit with the shoulder pads. A nice pair of khakis and polo work for men and a tasteful skirt and blouse are appropriate for women. If you are so inclined, I would recommend doing a bit of online research about the physician you will be following. Learn what people think about the doc, but don’t take any comments online too seriously. Usually people will write only when upset whereas the majority of patients could be very satisfied. See if you can learn where they attended medical school. If it’s somewhere you are interested in, great! Think of some questions about the place you could ask if there is some down time and the physician seems interested in chatting. While you’re waiting, you could also think of a few general questions about their specialty and perhaps bigger questions like why they got into medicine and if they’d do it all over again.

When you shadow, don’t speak unless spoken to. You are the doctor’s shadow. Most likely they will introduce you when you both enter a patient’s room as a “student.” Don’t worry if they say “medical student” and definitely do not correct them if they do! Your job is to just be quiet and observe the doctor’s interaction with the patient. If they patient agrees that you may join them, then you sit and watch. It’s extremely cool to be invited into such a personal, confidential space and you should treat it with respect!

Sometimes the doctor may ask you questions or tell you medical tidbits. If you don’t know an answer or have no idea what they are talking about, just say you don’t know what that means and invite them to inform you. If they agreed to let you follow them around and then engage you in medical conversation, they certainly won’t mind explaining what Munchausen’s is!

If you are staying the full day, a good time to get in some of your questions would be over lunch. Find out what their plans are and if you get an invite, great! Be casual, don’t freak out, but be respectful. Everyone likes a little flattery, so tell them if you thought the last case was really interesting. Be engaging and mirror their energy and dynamic.

After the day is over, thank them for letting you get a glimpse into their lives. If you follow for a longer period of time and/or really get to know the doc (perhaps you end up babysitting for them a couple times a year), then feel free to ask them about a possible letter of reference. If they agree, bring them a manilla envelope with your full name on the outside with a current resume, thank you note, and stamped enveloped inside adressed to the place where the letter should be sent. In the thank you note you can let them know that you’d like them to write about your potential as a doctor and your maturity perhaps. If there are any other outstanding issues the two of you discussed, you can mention those as well. Be grateful!

It’s perfectly okay to just shadow one doctor, but you can also see if the first can recommend you to others so that you can get a well rounded experience. If you decide to follow a hospitalist or want to go with the private practice doc when he/she checks up on patients in the hopsital, you will have to do several things.

1) Contact the medical staffing services at the hospital and inquire about the process for students to observe. They will most likely need you to do the following:

2) Get a TB skin test with negative results on file

3) Have a copy of a current health insurance card

4) Have a letter of reference from the physician. (You can ask the doc at the beginning of the day to type up a couple sentences about how you are planning to follow them and you are so and so from so and so university. They may have their office assistant type it up)

5) Fill out an observation form and get it signed by the physician.

These things take a couple days to complete, so I suggest looking into them in advance of your shadowing date.

Well, that’s pretty much it for this important premed step! My shadowing experience was very satisfying. I followed my family pediatrician for about 50 hours over the course of a year and we got very close. I nannied for her kids several times and got to see the personal side of being a woman physician in private practice. I learned so much about how to rock the contemporary home furnishings and enjoy the sweet BMW that might get you into some speeding ticket trouble on occasion. Overall, I know so much more about childhood ailments and interesting cases than I could have hoped to have learned. I also know quite a bit more about the stresses of running a private practice. I am definitely thinking my economics minor could be useful.

Shadowing is a necessary obstacle to becoming a medical student. If you approach with eagerness and open-mindedness, it really can be the most enjoyable part of the application process. It’s certainly more fun than organic chemistry!


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