One important aspect of your medical school application should be clinical experiences. One common way premeds learn about different specialties and experience the doctor-patient relationship firsthand is through shadowing doctors.
Shadowing a doctor is a great way to learn about the practical realities of medicine while showing medical schools your understanding of the profession. However, many premed students do not know how to shadow a doctor, whether it is finding a doctor to shadow or ensuring a worthwhile experience. This blog post covers the shadowing process from beginning to end, including how to find shadowing opportunities and get the most out of your experience.
The two most common questions we get from our premed mentees are:
- “How do I find shadowing opportunities?”
- “What do I do when I shadow physicians?”
How To Find Shadowing Opportunities
#1. Look for shadowing programs
Your university may have an official program that allows premeds to shadow physicians in a university-affiliated hospital or clinic. Some clinical volunteering programs also offer students opportunities to shadow. Furthermore, there are premed summer internships that integrate shadowing opportunities for aspiring doctors. Talk to other students and research online to find these programs.
The official shadowing programs may be easier to start with as there will already be an established structure in place for shadowing. Furthermore, it is likely that the physicians you shadow in these programs will be used to students shadowing them and thus more likely to provide you an educational experience.
#2. Contact physicians you already know
If your school does not offer official shadowing programs, another starting point is contacting physicians you already have a connection with. For example, if your family or friends work within medicine or know a physician, ask them to connect you. Some premeds even shadow their own primary care physicians! When Dr. Rizal started looking for shadowing opportunities, she asked her friends’ parents (who were nurses) if she could be introduced to any doctors they work with. Two of the first doctors she shadowed were through these connections!
Chances are, physicians through your networks will be more likely to let you shadow due to your pre-existing relationship. Be friendly and express that you are interested in medicine and ask whether you could shadow for a day or two at their convenience.
#3. Cold email physicians
Email physicians online you would like to shadow. You should include your name, where you attend school, and why you are interested in medicine.
Here’s a high yield tip so you can increase your chances of a response: include WHY you would like to shadow that physician. For instance, maybe you are interested in that specific field of medicine. Or, maybe you find a doctor who is an MD/MPH and you want to learn more about the physician’s role with communities and public health.
Consider attaching your resume to give a better idea of who you are. Be flexible when scheduling as many doctors are busy and unlikely to accommodate your availability. Because a cold email may be ignored, we also recommend following up with a call at these locations and asking whether there are any practitioners who might be open to having a student shadow. The worst that can happen is you are told no!
Sample Email To Doctors To Shadow
Dear Dr. [NAME],
My name is [NAME] and I’m a [#] year [MAJOR] major at [SCHOOL]. I am currently a molecular biology major and I am extremely interested in the field of oncology. Currently, I am conducting research in [INSERT NAME OF LAB] that looks at various tumor markers.
I am emailing because I found you bio online and I am very interested in shadowing you! I am particularly interested to learn more about patients with hematological disorders.
My schedule is flexible, and I can walk from campus to the main hospital.
Thank you for your consideration and I look forward to hearing from you!
How To Shadow A Doctor: Getting The Most Out Of Your Experiences
#1. Dress for success
Before considering how to shadow a doctor, it is important to dress for success! Your choice of attire will not only reflect on your professionalism but that of the doctor you shadow. Therefore, it is best to be conservative and dress as you would for an interview. Business professional attire is a safe bet and you can adjust accordingly after your first shift shadowing (e.g. if you need scrubs). If you plan to shadow for long periods of time, be sure to wear a pair of comfortable shoes as you will likely be standing around for extended hours!
#2. Introduce yourself to the team
The first thing you should do when you arrive is introduce yourself to the doctor you are shadowing as well as any other healthcare workers on the team. If time permits, you can mention your year in school, desired career path, as well as any particular interests you already have. With a warm introduction, it will be much less awkward for you and the doctor as you follow them throughout the day. Introducing yourself to everyone will also allow you to speak with them and ask them questions when the physician you are shadowing is busy.
#3. Take notes and ask questions when appropriate
It is a good idea to carry a notepad and pen with you as you shadow to take notes with. This will help you remember patients you encountered and what you learned while shadowing. You should also ask questions while shadowing! When there is down-time on shift and/or the doctor does not seem occupied, asking questions is a great way to demonstrate your enthusiasm and learn more from the shadowing experience.
We compiled a list of questions you might want to ask when shadowing a doctor:
- What are the pros and cons of your career? What are your hours during a typical week?
- Are there things that you wish you knew before pursuing medicine?
- What do you think about the future of medicine? Biggest challenges?
- How did you decide to pursue X specialty?
- Ask about their thought process when it comes to specific patients or medical decisions (e.g. why they are ordering specifics labs or medications).
- Ask about their opinion on recent news in healthcare, research. You can talk about your own research as well—see our blog post on research for premed students!
- Any other questions that come up while you are shadowing!
#4. Treat workers and patients with respect
Patient care and comfort should always come first ahead of your learning experience. Be respectful when you are in the room with a patient and understand that not all patients may be comfortable with having a shadow in the room. Always be respectful when communicating with patients and healthcare staff. This will ensure that the physician feels more comfortable with your presence, potentially allowing a more educational experience. Follow up with a thank you email! While not explicitly mandatory, it is polite and shows your gratitude for the experience.
#4. Write down and reflect on your experiences
When you get home or if there is down time in the hospital, write down interesting patients you met. Reflection is important, and they will also be helpful when you write your medical school application essays and interview at med schools.
Sample Reflections From Shadowing
January 20, 2020
Today I shadowed Dr. Vu in oncology clinic.
Patient-related issues you can write about:
- Were there any interesting patients today in clinic?
- Why were these patient encounters interesting?
- What did you learn about specific diseases or symptoms?
- What did you learn about specific diagnostic tests?
- What did you learn about specific medical treatments?
- Did the physician interact with the patient in a specific way you want to emulate when you are a physician one day?
Physician-related issues you can write about about:
- What is the lifestyle of the physician? What do you like or dislike about it?
- What types of patients does the physician interact with in a typical clinic day or week?
- Does the physician do other health-related endeavors? For example, does he work in hospital administration? Does he conduct research? Does he work in the community as a public health advocate? Is he involved with advocacy and public policy organizations? How does the physician split his time between clinical practice and other endeavors?
- What did you learn about medical teams?
How To Shadow A Doctor FAQ
Q: What do I do if I do not understand medical terminology?
A: Other than asking, you can also take notes on the conditions you see and terms you hear during your shadowing which you may be unfamiliar with. Go over your notes after shadowing and look up anything you did not manage to get answered. Review your notes briefly before other shadowing shifts so that you can refresh your memory and begin catching patterns for certain conditions and be familiar with medical terminology.
Q: Can I write about things I learned while shadowing on my med school application?
A: Absolutely! Consider journaling about your experience after each shadow shift. Not just on what you saw, but on your thoughts and realizations about what you observed. How the shift might have influenced how you think about the field or the kind of healthcare provider you would like to become in the future. Graduate school applications might not be for a few years. But it would be a shame to forget these pivotal experiences that shaped your view of medicine. Be careful to not record any PHI-related information to stay in compliance with HIPAA.
Q: What types of doctor should I shadow? For how many hours?
A: While you should try to shadow a variety of specialties, medical schools like to see shadowing in primary care settings as these are most likely to give you a general understanding of medicine. Aim for at least 50 hours of shadowing across multiple specialties to get a sufficiently in-depth and varied view of medicine.
Q: How should I introduce myself to patients?
A: Usually, the doctor you are shadowing will introduce you to any patients they see. If you are asked to introduce yourself, say that you are a pre-medical student interested in becoming a physician shadowing Dr. X to learn more about the profession. Honesty is the best policy to avoid situations you are not trained for!
Q: How to shadow a doctor in high school?
A: The process for shadowing physicians as a high schooler is similar to that which a college student would follow. However, finding a doctor to shadow in high school typically is harder and most of our premed advisees relied more heavily on personal connections.
It is particularly important that you showcase your professionalism and maturity as a physician may be worried about allowing a younger student to shadow. You should also ensure you are complying with policies of the hospital or clinic, as shadowing policies may not permit minors to shadow.
Contact us with any questions about getting into medical school and check out our premed advising packages here.
Blog post written by Kevin Li and Dr. Rachel Rizal