Follow a blueprint to a successful physician shadowing experience
If you are considering a career in medicine but are uncertain about the day-to-day work life of a physician, consider a shadowing opportunity. Shadowing a clinician can help you make a decision about whether or not you want to even enter a premed curriculum. You'll also have a chance to learn about the unique environments of care in a hospital, including professionalism and culture.
When to Start Shadowing
If you're a high school student, you can find opportunities in local outpatient clinics and hospitals. I often suggest that students begin by asking their own physician to either allow the student to shadow them or recommend a colleague for them to shadow.
Another option is to check clinic and hospital websites for volunteer opportunities, which may include opportunities for shadowing. Consider volunteering in the emergency department, if that's an option, as you will be exposed to a variety of physicians, patients and conditions.
Don't let your shadowing experiences end after high school. Your applications to medical school will be much richer if you engage in shadowing experiences during your undergraduate years. These experiences are evidence that you have maintained your interest in medicine and that you are aware of the workload.
Some universities offer shadowing courses that you can sign up for. Although some admissions committees wouldn't disregard your experience if you enrolled in a shadowing course, you can demonstrate initiative by pursuing your own shadowing experiences.
Consider a Research Program
Many hospitals sponsor student research programs with opportunities for shadowing. At my hospital, between 80 and 100 high school students participate in this kind of the program every summer. Quite a few hospitals offer these pipeline programs, with the hope that these future nurses, doctors and other health care providers will want to work at their institution.
I'm often asked to present to our students about how to get into medical school, and I'm confident other hospitals offer similar presentations that will help you determine the right career path.
Questions to Ask
Even if initially you are engaged in a non-clinical experience such as research, you are sure to meet many clinicians. Don't hesitate to ask them if you can shadow them for a few hours or a day. Try to be exposed to different kinds of physicians and ask them questions about what they like regarding their careers.
It is also fair to ask them what they don't like and whether they would make the same decision again. You can ask them about the future of their specialty and what they might recommend for someone considering that field.
Ask how they balance their work with home life about what a typical day for them is like. Ask what kind of a person is successful in this career. Ask who they might recommend you contact for additional career advice.
The more you get a feel for the work and the physician's lifestyle, the better the decision you will make for your own career.
How Much Shadowing is Enough?
There is no magic number of hours for a shadowing experience, though a ballpark average of about 50 hours should give you a solid idea of the day-to-day work life of a physician.
How to Choose a Physician to Shadow
Most admission committee members would prefer that you not shadow exclusively with a subspecialist. By shadowing with more than one kind of physician, you are demonstrating that you are open to learning about other medical subspecialties.
And don't discount shadowing with a primary care physician. Working with a PCP allows you to see a variety of diseases and also enables you to get to know the patients. What's more, you will likely meet a patient or two who particularly impress you during one of your shadowing experiences. These special patients may become part of your primary application essay, so be sure to remember them.
Most students have remarkable shadowing experiences and are grateful for the opportunities — they truly help them decide whether or not to go into medicine. Similarly, admissions committees consider these experiences as evidence that the students have some appreciation for what lies ahead.
A Word About HIPAA
During every clinical encounter, including physician shadowing you need to keep Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act regulations in mind. HIPAA is designed to protect patient confidentiality.
As part of your medical school orientation, you will be trained in HIPAA compliance. You will be expected to follow HIPAA regulations at all times.
For example, you cannot share protected patient information with others outside the care team; this includes your family and closest friends. You cannot post comments about specific patients on Facebook or Twitter. You cannot take photos of patients, nor should you meet them outside of the clinical setting.
HIPAA compliance is part of professionalism, which is a highly valued quality in the medical system. You will want to hold yourself to those standards.
Many students have remarkable shadowing experiences and are grateful for the opportunities — they truly help them decide whether or not to go into medicine. Similarly, admissions committees consider these experiences as evidence that the students have some appreciation for what lies ahead.
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