Shadowing a physician in practice is typically considered an important part of the premed experience. Though the experience is not explicitly required by most medical schools (a select few, particularly D.O. schools, or those that offer doctor of osteopathic medicine degrees, do require this experience), it is strongly advised to have some experience shadowing a practicing physician before applying to medical school.
Most schools strongly recommend shadowing—as opposed to volunteer experiences—as a way to know what profession you're getting into. While there has been some debate about the ethics surrounding shadowing in recent issues of The Journal of the American Medical Association, it remains a valuable tool to not only ensure you are a good fit for a medical career, but also for you to be able to speak credibly about your experience in medicine on applications and interviews.
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How do you get the most out of shadowing?
1. Know how to find a physician: This can be one of the toughest parts for many premeds. If you happen to have contacts in medicine, that would be the first way to go. Don't be afraid to leverage your network or cold call offices; usually physicians welcome the presence of an enthusiastic observer.
Otherwise, some premeds have found success in signing up to be volunteers at an academic medical center; many times, signing up as a volunteer there provides shadowing opportunities. Some university prehealth networks also offer shadowing programs that set up premeds with a participating physician.
2. Find the right practice setting: Though you can shadow in any specialty in which you are interested, medical schools view experiences in a primary care specialty (e.g. family practice, pediatrics) or surgery as more indicative that you are making a well-informed decision to pursue medicine.
Shadowing in an academic setting can be especially helpful, since you will be with medical students, residents, and a supervising physician. Since this setting is already designed to account for teaching time, having an extra student is easy and usually welcome. Of course, shadowing a community physician is also valuable, though the physician (and their patients) may be less accustomed to an additional (and unfamiliar) person in the exam room.
3. Become familiar with professional etiquette: Though it may seem obvious to some, this is not the time to dress casually or make a fashion statement. Since you will be in contact with patients, it's best to wear business attire. Many students wearing clothing that is too casual or revealing have been asked to leave clinical services more times than you would expect.
In addition to looking professional, it is also important to act professionally. Many physicians welcome questions, as it shows you're paying attention and interested—but it's best to hold the questions until the end of a patient encounter or at the end of the day. Your shadowing experience could become awkward if you inadvertently interrupt a patient exam or rounds.
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4. Broaden your clinical exposure: Often shadowing premeds, as well as medical students, are brought to the more exciting events on clinical services—like the odd case or an exciting surgery. Or, a shadowing student may, for example, only be in plastic surgery or dermatology clinic.
While these are great experiences (especially for your medical school interviews), it's important to also try to shadow on the more mundane side of medicine—like surgery clinic and urgent care. Medical schools want to see that you're familiar with medicine's potential downsides, in an effort to lower the chance that someone enrolls and becomes disillusioned.
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5. Show your commitment: Once you find a shadowing opportunity, spending a longitudinal amount of time (such as a few hours per week over months) helps you communicate your interests in medicine more effectively to admissions committees. Though medical schools don't require a certain number of hours (some recommend 40 hours total), they want you to have enough experiences to be able to reflect on them (in a personal statement or interview) in a meaningful way.
Following these five steps will help you get the most of a shadowing experience, understand what medicine is really about, and show admissions committees what you've learned both clinically and personally.
Ibrahim Busnaina, M.D. is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and coauthor of "Examkrackers' How to Get Into Medical School." He has been consulting with prospective medical school applicants, with a special focus on minority and other nontraditional candidates, since 2006.