Medicine is a demanding profession that requires years of training, so before applying to medical school aspiring doctors should do a significant amount of career exploration and soul-searching to gauge whether they truly want to be a physician, experts recommend.
Premeds need to gain some insight into the medical profession so that they can determine whether it’s right for them, experts advise, and doctor shadowing is one of many types of clinical experiences that can clarify whether a job as a doctor would be personally fulfilling.
Although premeds often believe that they cannot be competitive applicants unless they participate in physician shadowing, some medical school officials say this is a misconception. They suggest that as long as a premed has relevant clinical experience of some kind — such as working or volunteering in a health care setting or conducting clinical research — he or she is not obligated to shadow a physician in order to qualify for medical school.
Is Shadowing a Doctor Mandatory?
Dr. Edward Halperin, chancellor and CEO of New York Medical College and provost for biomedical affairs with the Touro College and University System, emphasizes that shadowing is not a prerequisite for medical school and says there are alternative ways for premeds to get clinical experience.
“The point is not to check the box of shadowing,” he says. “The whole point is, do you understand what you’re getting yourself into? Have you done anything which shows that you have some idea of how to deal with people in distress and what physicians do for a living?”
Halperin says it is “perfectly fine” to obtain clinical experience for medical school in a way that does not involve shadowing. Premeds should shadow a physician only if they think that would be a satisfying way to learn about the medical profession, he says, and they should do something else if they think a different activity would allow them to learn more.
[Read: Premed Students: Avoid 4 Physician Shadowing Mistakes.]
Halperin notes that he did not shadow a doctor before he began medical school.
“I would never consider less of an applicant if they hadn’t, and in fact, it’s very easy to spot people who have treated shadowing as a box to check,” he says.
Sometimes a med school hopeful will tout the credentials of the doctor shadowed, but lessons learned in the shadowing experience are what should be emphasized, Halperin says. If premeds do shadow, they should be able to talk thoughtfully about what they witnessed and why it matters, and they need to be able to articulate their empathy for patients in difficult situations, he adds.
Dr. Demicha Rankin, associate dean of admissions and an associate professor of anesthesiology at the Ohio State University College of Medicine, wrote in an email that that while “physician shadowing is a valuable experience, the relative lack of shadowing does not disqualify strong candidates.”
How to Choose Where and Whom to Shadow
Experts say medical school hopefuls should aim to shadow doctors who are excited by the idea of being mentors.
Dr. Monya De, an internal medicine physician and independent medical school admissions consultant based in California, notes that some doctors enjoy teaching premeds about their profession. These physicians tend to welcome premeds, De says, but other doctors are not quite as friendly or approachable.
“You can have somebody who’s always in a bad mood and moves so fast that they’re not really explaining what’s going on,” De says, adding that premeds shadowing a physician of that sort might “feel like they’re in the way” and not have a positive experience.
When looking for a place to shadow, premeds should search for an environment where the staff is happy to have a student present, De says. Premeds who are curious about a particular medical specialty should consider shadowing a doctor within that specialty or a related field, De suggests. Aspiring doctors who are interested in osteopathic medical schools or who are curious about the hands-on treatments that osteopathic physicians provide could benefit from shadowing an osteopathic doctor.
Some experts suggest that premeds get experience in a variety of health care environments so they can appreciate the differences between various medical careers and understand the array of options within the medical profession. Shadowing is not the only way to explore an interest in the medical profession, but it can be a valuable learning experience, experts say.
Some recommend that premeds shadow both an inpatient and outpatient doctor. Inpatient physicians tend to treat patients who are hospitalized in severe distress, whereas outpatient doctors usually treat patients in less dire circumstances, so their work lives are dramatically different.
Another shadowing recommendation endorsed by some experts is the idea that a premed should shadow both a primary care doctor and a subspecialist physician.
How to Shadow a Doctor
When it comes to shadowing, quality trumps quantity, experts say. A premed who is shadowing a doctor should ask thoughtful questions at times that are not disruptive such as during scheduled chats, and he or she should do homework on the aspects of a doctor’s work that are most intriguing, Halperin says.
Anyone shadowing a physician should be comfortable interacting with individuals from a variety of backgrounds, as well as courteous, Rankin says.
“Be appropriately inquisitive and use good situational awareness,” she wrote in an email. Rankin notes that questions about how and why a physician made certain decisions can lead to illuminating conversations.
“Timing is also important as some questions do need to wait until the observer is prompted by the physician,” she adds. “A large portion of shadowing is observing which also gives the student an opportunity to reflect and seek independent learning even after the shadowing experience.”
[Read: What Type of Research Helps You Get Into Medical School?]
The optimal amount of time for a single shadowing experience is a month, with two weeks as a bare minimum, says Dr. Betsy A.B. Greenleaf, an osteopathic obstetrician-gynecologist in New Jersey.
“Consider going at different times during the day,” Greenleaf wrote in an email. “This is especially true in the emergency room. You will be exposed to different experiences during midday on a weekday versus midnight on a Saturday night. Varying locations such as a small community hospital versus an inner-city hospital will also give you a vastly different experience.”
Tasha Posid, faculty adviser for the First-Generation Pre-Medical Student Organization at Ohio State, says it’s best for premeds to spend a significant amount of time with each doctor they shadow.
If a premed were to shadow 10 physicians but spent only a handful of hours with each, the student wouldn’t necessarily get “a real understanding of day-to-day life” for each physician, Posid wrote in an email. But if a premed spent 20 to 30 hours with only three doctors, he or she would get a much clearer picture of the doctors’ medical specialties, Posid says.
Posid, a Ph.D.-trained surgical educator and education specialist in the urology department at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center, notes that health care experience is essential for premeds and recommends that aspiring doctors acquire 200 to 300 hours of clinical experience.
“Nowadays, strong medical school applicants have this experience, and you should as well,” she wrote. “That being said, it does not necessarily all have to be shadowing. Shadowing is useful and certainly looks good in your application. However, this can be combined with other experiences, such as being a medical scribe, a hospital volunteer, working at a community clinic, or working in a clinical research lab, to provide a few examples.”
[Read: How to Make Sure You Fulfill Medical School Requirements for Admission.]
De says premeds should consider conducting a research project in connection with their shadowing experience, such as a project about how long it takes to do certain procedures. Doing research related to shadowing can make the shadowing experience more engaging, she says.
Regardless of whether a premed conducts shadowing-related research or not, he or she should strive to develop rapport with the doctor who is being shadowed.
“This should be enough time to develop a relationship with the doctor where the doctor is not going to forget who you are,” De says, adding that the hope is to make a lasting impression that the doctor will remember for a year or two. Ideally, a premed who shadows a physician can get a letter of recommendation from that physician, De adds.
Premeds should prioritize their school work and not sacrifice their grades in order to maximize their shadowing time, De warns. When premeds shadow doctors, she says, they will hopefully walk away from that experience with a good story to share in an admissions essay or interview.
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