Shadow a Physician to Gain Insight for Medical School

Physician shadowing allows premed students to engage with patients and observe professional doctors.

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One of the best ways to be proactive while shadowing is to ask both yourself and the doctor questions about the job duties.
One of the best ways to be proactive while shadowing is to ask both yourself and the doctor questions about the job duties.

The best way to know what career best suits you is to get some firsthand exposure to that specific career. This often means taking part in an internship.

For a career in medicine, however, you need to go to medical school before you can actually work as an intern. With the option of interning gone, shadowing physicians is one of the most effective methods of getting acquainted with a career in medicine. 

The first benefit of shadowing is that it provides you a great way to build a relationship with a physician. He or she can serve as your mentor or friend. You can ask for a letter of recommendation or a referral to another physician to shadow. 

[Plan ahead in order to reduce medical school stress.] 

Second, shadowing allows you to engage with patients, giving you the opportunity to learn more about them and their ailments. Hearing patients' stories was one of the biggest reasons why I enjoyed shadowing. There were deep and emotional moments, such as being with a patient who was just told that her cancer returned, and simple and light times learning about a patient's hometown and why I should visit. 

Lastly, shadowing a physician should challenge you and lead to greater hunger to learn more about medicine. You should finish your shadowing term wanting to be in your physician's shoes in the future. Shadowing gives you tangible goals to work toward as you realize more of your passion for medicine. 

Shadowing a physician means that you are following a doctor as he or she engages with daily duties. You observe how the doctor interacts with patients, performs procedures, converses with his coworkers and even how he spends his lunch. You are not expected to do much, especially since you know very little about medicine. 

[Check out the benefits of undergraduate medical research.] 

Although there is no definitive rule on how much you should shadow, if you are interested in going to medical school, you should try to shadow anywhere from 50-100 hours by the time you apply. 

Some people find it more productive to spend an entire week with a physician, which is possible if you are on break. Others like to spread it out and shadow a couple of afternoons every month. 

Students should get various shadowing experiences with doctors in different specialties. Make sure to shadow the same doctor enough times to get a strong sense of what he or she does on a daily basis, especially if you are a medical student deciding what specialty to pursue. 

There is an incredible amount of variability in shadowing. Depending on the specialty, practice setting, time pressures and personality of the doctor you are shadowing, your time could be rich and engaging or less than fulfilling. 

Your physician might not involve you in any of the daily routine, or could choose to be incredibly accommodating and ask you to do more than you expected. No matter what the situation may be, when you do decide to shadow a physician, it is best to keep your expectations low. 

Do not be surprised if you are not asked to help. As a shadower, you are there primarily as an observer. If you do want your experience to be somewhat significant, you must be proactive and intentional. 

One of the best ways to do this is to ask both yourself and the doctor questions. Ask yourself if you can see yourself doing the doctor's tasks on a daily basis and ask what specifically attracts you to this profession or specialty. 

[Find out how to get advice from current medical school students.] 

Ask yourself if you are more drawn to diagnostic problem-solving or performing procedures. Do you enjoy being around patients? 

You should also pay attention to anything you may dislike about being a doctor and focus on what makes the experience meaningful to you and whether your motivation to become a doctor has increased or decreased as a result of shadowing. 

Ask the doctor what he or she enjoys most about the job and about the path he or she took to get the job. Ask for more detail about specific diseases and about strategies for dealing and engaging with patients. You should also ask about how the profession has affected his or her family and personal life and seek as much additional career advice as possible. 

Asking these questions will help you find purpose and pleasure in physician shadowing. 

At the end of the day, shadowing is really what you make of it. While shadowing will be different based upon who or where you shadow, you will still be the one who controls expectations, thoughts and level of commitment. 

Make sure to go into your shadowing experience with an open mind, ready to learn and be inspired. You never know – your most meaningful shadowing experience could become a major part of your medical school personal statement. 

Edward Chang is a graduate of UCLA, where he attends the David Geffen School of Medicine. In addition to managing ProspectiveDoctor.com, he also counsels prospective medical school applicants. Contact him at edwardchang@prospectivedoctor.com.