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Shadowing a Doctor: The Ultimate Pre-Med Guide

If you’re considering a career in medicine, shadowing a doctor is one of the best ways to get information about your future field.

Before entering medical school, most pre-med students spend at least some time shadowing.

But any student who is thinking of going into a health-related field can benefit from a shadowing opportunity.

Different from an actual clinical experience where you’re interacting with and assisting patients, the shadowing process is more passive. This isn’t to say that it isn’t important.

In fact, observing a doctor in practice is one of the most essential parts of preparing for medical school.

How Does the Process Work?

Think of what a shadow does. It follows you around, going where you go and moving where you move.

The process of shadowing a doctor is a similar one.

  • Almost all of your time is spent observing, watching, and looking at what is going on.
  • As they go about their day and treat their patients, the doctor might let you do an exam or answer a few questions, but most of the time, you’re just a fly on the wall.

Although this isn’t a ‘hands-on’ experience, what you can learn from it is invaluable.

What Are the Advantages of Shadowing a Doctor?

Shadowing will allow you to see what the everyday job of a physician looks like. It will give you experience that you probably don’t have at this point.

  • It will also help you decide if medicine is really for you.
  • Many pre-med students find through observation that the daily routine of a doctor is not as glamorous as it looks on TV.

Some even change their minds and go a different route.

  • You might think that you want to be an OBGYN but find out through shadowing that you are more interested in internal medicine.

On the other hand, you might decide that the specialty you are considering is the perfect one for you.

  • The most important reason to consider shadowing is that it is often a deciding factor for those trying to get into medical school.
  • When applying and interviewing for med school admission, you’ll need to convince a committee that you really want to be a doctor.
  • Your experiences can serve you, allowing you to answer questions like “why medicine” and “how do you know this is for you?” with real-world gleanings instead of generic fillers.

Gap Medics discusses situations in which international pre-med students with very good GAMSAT grades and researching skills lose med school spots to someone with more experience shattering a doctor.

These are the benefits of shadowing a doctor:

  • Confirmation that medicine is the best career path for you
  • First-hand field knowledge will be gained during your shadowing experience
  • You’ll be able to visit and observe in various medical environments (e., clinics, hospitals)
  • Shadowing can help you pick (or rule out) a specialty
  • Plenty to talk about during your future med-school interview
  • You’ll be building relationships with medical providers who can write you letters of recommendations later on

How Much Shadowing is Enough?

Many medical schools in the US have a minimum requirement for shadowing hours.

  • This varies widely, with most experts recommending between 40 and 100 hours of shadowing.
  • This might seem like a lot, but keep in mind that a doctor usually works 10-12 hour days.
  • You want to split your time shadowing up between specialists.

So just three days with three different doctors would allow you to rack up enough observation hours.

When Should You Shadow a Doctor?

A common mistake that many pre-med students make is waiting right before applying to medical school to spend time shadowing.

  • This might seem ideal for a lot of students since you’ll have more time to volunteer during the ‘gap time,’ but the risks are high.

For one, it can take a while to find the right fit.

  • Locating a placement on your own can be difficult (we will talk more about this below).
  • You might find a doctor to shadow right away if you’re lucky, but most pre-med students have to do a little searching.

It will also take time to build rapport and a relationship with the physician you’re working with.

A doctor you just met just last week won’t know you well enough to write the type of quality letter of reference you’ll need to get into med school. This is not something you want to leave to chance.

How to Find a Doctor to Shadow

If you have a family member or friend who is a doctor and will allow you to shadow, then you might not even need to read this section.

If you are clueless as to how to secure a placement, especially in a specialty field, try this:

  • Ask around.

Your family, friends, neighbors, and former teachers are usually the best place to start when looking for a doctor to shadow.

Other pre-med students are also good people to ask. They may know someone who will be willing to help and can vouch for you. You’ll still need to ask the physician yourself.

After all, you’ll want to show that you’re serious about wanting to observe/learn and are ‘in it’ for the right reasons. 

  • Feel out your family doctor.

Another great option for shadowing can be found in the clinic you attend as a patient.

Because you will already have a relationship with your family doctor, he or she is more likely to agree to allow you to shadow than a stranger.

You’ll probably feel more comfortable as well, allowing you to gain more from the experience. 

  • Make a list.

Most pre-med students are advised to check out several different specialties during their shadow time. Make a list of the areas you want to know more about.

This will allow you to narrow your search of physicians and target practices that treat what you’re really interested in.

For example, if you’re interested in optometry, you wouldn’t want to waste your time shadowing at general clinics. Instead, you’d be better off observing at an eye care clinic.

  • Contact a pre-med advisor.

If you already have a school contact, you can get in touch with that advisor since many have a network of physicians who have allowed students to shadow in the past.

If you aren’t sure what schools you’re going to apply to, you can still ask around. Most academic advisors are happy to help any student showing initiative.

  • Call a hospital’s volunteering office.

Volunteer service managers are useful contacts since they often need people to help out and have connects to physicians.

  • Reach out directly.

This might be a ‘no brainer’ for you, but you might just have to make some cold calls and send out emails to find a shadowing opportunity.

If you’re an extrovert, you might already have a list of numbers to call. Introverts or those who hate sales might dread the prospect of calling around to find a place to observe.

It’s not as bad as it sounds. Remember that these doctors were once pre-med students and walked in your shoes.

Because of this, most will be willing to help.

E-mail and/or Snail-mail

You can start by sending a formal e-mail. You can use a generic template for a bulk of the communication, but make sure you personalize each message so that they won’t feel like ‘just another number.’

You’ll want to include:

  • A direct message asking for a shadowing experience.
  • Your name and contact information.
  • Where you are in your education/training.
  • What you’re hoping to gain from the experience.
  • Your resume

The same type of letter can be sent out using regular mail if you’re having trouble finding a placement.

However, this comes with a cost (stamps, envelopes, printing, etc.), so most pre-med students use it as a last resort.

Cold-calling

Before you make your first call, prepare yourself for negative responses. Sure, you might get lucky and find a placement at the first clinic you phone, but it is unlikely.

Just don’t let a ‘no’ get you down or discourage you from looking for other physicians to shadow. If you are persistent, you’ll find a doctor to observe.

Tips for calling:

  • Gather the contact info of the specialist you want to observe.
  • Call their office and tell the receptionist you are a pre-med student (mention your university) and are going to go to med school in the near future. Ask if doctor ________ allows students to shadow.
  • Give the receptionist your information as well as the days and times you want to shadow and ask them to pass it along to the doctor or office manager.
  • Allow a few days for them to respond. If you don’t hear anything back, give them another call or send a follow-up

How to Ask Them If You Can Shadow

Once you get a callback, ask for a shadowing experience and be honest/direct about why you would like to observe them.

Make connections if possible.

  • Make sure to mention your intentions as far as how long you plan to shadow, etc.

If the doctor is calling you, it is likely that they are interested in having you observe.

If for some reason they decline, or the timing doesn’t work out, ask if they know any other doctors who might be interested.

First-Day Tips While Shadowing a Doctor

Like fingerprints, no two shadowing experiences will be just alike. There are several things you can do to make the process go smoothly.

Most are common sense suggestions, but it is good to go into shadowing with a guideline or plan for what to do if certain situations arise.

  • First, you’ll want to make sure that you’re early.
  • Now notice, I didn’t say on time.
  • Making it a habit to arrive 15-20 minutes early.
  • You never want to be late, especially since you’ll be shooting for a letter of recommendation at the end of your experience.

If you’re there when the clinic opens or a little open for your shift, you’ll have time to plan for the day, look at the patient load, speak with staff members, and ask any questions that you have for the doctor you’re shadowing.

You might be wondering, “What should I wear while shadowing?”

  • Make sure you are groomed both professionally and comfortably. Closed toe shoes are a must.
  • Overdress for your first day and ask the office staff/doctor about appropriate attire for shadowing days going forward.

Although you won’t be doing much talking during the time that you’re shadowing a doctor, you’ll want to take notes if allowed.

If the physician doesn’t want you to take any notes in the exam room, you should still bring a notebook to the site anyway.

This way, you can write a summary of your experience during break time or after the day is done.

Interacting With Patients

When you enter an exam room, the doctor will introduce you to the patient and explain who you are.

Some patients may talk to you. They may ask you questions. Others may seem uncomfortable or ignore you altogether.

  • You should ask the doctor how to handle these matters before shadowing begins.
  • This way, there are few misunderstandings.

Most of all, remember that all information you are privy to while shadowing a doctor must remain private and confidential, as required by HIPPA.

  • One of the main reasons physicians chose not to shadow is because of privacy concerns.

You will need to make sure that does not become an issue.

Questions to Ask Yourself While Shadowing a Doctor

Asking the right questions is one of the most important parts of the shadowing experience. If you ask too few questions, you won’t learn much.

If you inquire too much, you might overstep your boundaries.

When the mood feels right, you might consider the following:

Questions to ask yourself:

  • Can I see myself doing this job on a daily basis?
  • Do I like being around patients?
  • Which parts will I enjoy the most?
  • Are there parts that I might dislike?
  • Is there a different specialty I might enjoy better?

Questions to Ask the Doctor:

You’ll want to find the right time to talk to the physician you’re shadowing.

A patient exam isn’t the right time since all of his or her attention will be focused on treatment.

At the beginning of the day or between exams, you might ask:

  • How did you get where you are today?
  • What tips do you have on interacting with patients?
  • Can you explain more to me about _______?

Asking the right questions will help you avoid common mistakes like not planning well enough, wearing the wrong attire, interacting with patients in an inappropriate way, and not taking the experience serious enough.

What to Do After A Shadowing Experience if Over

As you leave any shadowing experience, thank the doctor and their staff.

  • You’ll want to do this in person and in writing (through a thank you card.)
  • It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but you’ll want to make sure you show your appreciation.

At this point, many pre-med students start to wonder the best way to ask for a letter of recommendation.

  • If you’re upfront about this early on, it will be much easier to request.
  • You should ask for this letter sooner rather than later.

You can ask in person or by phone, but make sure that you express your thanks for the opportunity as a whole.

What If I Can’t Find a Doctor to Shadow?

Finding a shadow experience isn’t always easy. Many pre-med students struggle to find a placement, even after trying all of the tips listed above.

You shouldn’t give up though. Instead, try:

  • Free clinics or charity hospitals
  • Volunteer with a hospice or EMT organization
  • Take a job as a medical assistant/ CNA
  • Look for a paid shadowing program

Advice From a Doctor

Kellner Pruett, MD, Sweet Briar alumna (Class of 2012) and preventive medicine physician in Greenville, N.C. has this advice for shadowing a doctor:

If you already have a relationship with a physician, such as your own personal physician, or someone you know from the community, the easiest thing is to ask to shadow them directly. However, if you don’t know anyone in the industry, the best thing to do is call local primary care offices such as family medicine, internal medicine, and pediatrics, and ask if they allow student shadowers.

Once you find someone who is willing to work with you, establish a clear schedule and make sure you ask if there is required paperwork you need to complete before shadowing. Remember to be professional and gracious towards all the staff you work with during the day. Sending the office a thank you note after your experience is also a nice touch.

My advice to pre-med students is to think outside the box when it comes to typical shadowing experiences. There are tons of other ways to get involved in the medical industry other than shadowing. Becoming a medical scribe or EMT gives you hands-on patient exposure.

Other opportunities, such as becoming a hospice or medical transport volunteer, can teach you how to communicate with patients and families. Not only does this help you decided if you enjoy patient care, but it also shows medical school admissions committees your dedication to the profession.

Conclusion: Shadowing a Doctor

Shadowing a doctor can be one of the best experiences in the days before being accepted to medical school.

Many doctors look back and see it as the foundation of their career, the time in which they were able to really take a look at themselves after they wanted to become.

This should not be a stressful time, but a fulfilling one in which you learn about yourself and others.

Being open-minded, committed, and flexible will allow you to make the best of the experience and take what you learn to the next level.