Physician Shadowing: Tips for a Great Experience
Before applying to medical school, one of the major pillars of a solid application is adequate clinical experience time. This largely is accomplished by physician shadowing – a long-standing practice of aspiring doctors. Shadowing can take many forms, but usually means that a student will follow and observe a doctor and their daily practice. This can be a nerve-wracking and daunting task to students, especially if they have little prior medical experience. Here are a few tips to make the most of your experience.
Picking your physician carefully
It is without a doubt that you will increase the work and slow the time of whatever physician you shadow. You need to find someone who is not only ok with this, but enjoys the experience! Friendly/outgoing, laid back, and energetic are some of the personality traits to look for. It is often advantageous if you personally know the physician as well; they may take more of an interest in you getting a great experience! So if you have a family or personally connection to a friendly physician, they would be high on my list to ask.
Picking your practice setting
I would suggest for first time shadowing students, consider a primary care specialty. Family practice, pediatrics, and a variety outpatient medicine clinics all would be adequate but the best of these is probably family practice. Family practice will allow you to see patients of all age groups as well get a good idea of the standard clinic day and operations. Inpatient medicine can certainly be exciting but often comes with larger teams of learners and in general the hospital setting tends to be more intimidating to new students.
How to act once you start
Once you have you place and time set up, there are a few pointers to remember:
Never be late, rarely be on time, consistently be early.
Ask about attire/dress code ahead of time and err on the side of formality.
Introduce yourself to the clinic staff and try to remember the names of those who work there. Routinely ask if there is anything you can help with.
When seeing patients, introduce yourself and your role and SMILE regularly.
Follow the physician lead for common practices at their clinic, such as when to close exam room doors, wash hands vs. alcohol sanitize, etc. When in doubt, always at least alcohol sanitize your hands after each patient contact.
Be interested, but do not interrupt a patient interview to ask questions of either the patient or the preceptor. Save questions until a clear break period.
If asked to participate in an exam, such as listening to lung sounds, step up and do so eagerly. But don’t examine anything the attending hasn’t asked you to center in on.
Don’t focus on the details of medicine, you won’t know many diagnosis or treatments and you won’t have time to learn them just from shadowing.
Focus on the culture and lifestyle of medicine. How does it feel to take care of patients? Does the stress of people relying on you for their care bother you? Is helping people important to you? Can you be friendly and engaging to patients from all walks of life?
Try to live the life of the physician you are shadowing. Arrive when they do, if possible stay until they are done. Ask them about their choice to go into medicine. What are they happy with? What would they change?
Lastly, simply don’t be annoying. This can be mean many things, but remember you are mostly there to be friendly and interested but largely behind the scenes. The better you are at this, ironically the more likely the physician is to further involve you in the patient care!
After the shadowing experience:
Thank you notes/cards are a must! Ideally get these sent out within a few weeks of your last day, even if it was only a day. If you had a great experience and felt the physician enjoyed having your there, I’d highly suggest asking for a letter or recommendation for your medical school application. Extended shadowing experience is probably the best way to get strong letters of recommendation that will go a long way on your application.
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